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Class of 2020 has one-of-a-kind graduation

Pocahontas County School mechanics Ian Bennett and Justin Taylor, along with volunteer Stephanie Barkley, used a photo by Kanawha County Schools to create “2020” with the school buses. Bob Simmons used a drone to take the photo and Heather Simmons created a design using the photo to celebrate the Class of 2020 online. Photo courtesy of Bob Simmons
May 20 was an unforgettable day at work for senior Charity Warder. The “graduation bus” stopped at Seneca State Forest where she was presented her diploma, a yard sign, graduation packet and a pepperoni roll. Above, Warder receives her packet and sign from math teacher Casey Griffith, left, and principal Joe Riley. S. Stewart photo

Suzanne Stewart
Staff Writer

It’s been a year that no one will ever forget – especially the Pocahontas County High School Class of 2020.

When they stepped into the halls of PCHS as the “big dogs on campus” in August 2019, they had no idea what was in store for them. As they were preparing for mid-terms in their final semester as high school students, the COVID-19 pandemic began calling the shots – ending their high school career as they knew it.

Classes continued online, but athletics and socialization was over. The students persevered with the help of their families, teachers, the community and, of course, the Internet.

They got jobs, they studied, they applied for college, signed up for the military and wondered if they would cross the stage to receive their diplomas.

While the Pocahontas County Board of Education and PCHS staff decided there will be a graduation ceremony of some sort on June 20, the board office felt something needed to be done for the seniors in May – when they would have graduated.

So, after some swift planning and gathering of resources, superintendent Terrence Beam, PCHS principal Joe Riley, director of transportation Ruth Bland, teacher Casey Griffith, board of education president Joe Walker and bus drivers Joe Judy, Kevin Thompson Chuck McQuain, Gary Cutlip, Mike Galford and Don McNeel piled onto a big yellow school bus May 20 at 7 a.m. and spent 11 hours traveling the roads of Pocahontas County to deliver diplomas and graduation packets to each of the seniors.

Following along were cooks Sarah Hedrick and Martha Friel, and teacher Cammy Kesterson.

“It was one of the best days I’ve had on the job,” Beam said. “I have got to give a hundred percent credit to Ruth. Ruth came up with the idea, and she shared it with the high school – the principal and teachers – just kind of floating the idea and everybody seemed to like it.”

Bland had the trip scheduled down to the minute and while there were times they were behind or ahead, the “graduation bus” got a grand reception as it rolled through the county.

“It was really touching to see,” Beam said. “The kids were obviously tickled to have it done – but the parents seemed so appreciative. I saw so many tears from parents. People would come out from houses all around to see what all the commotion was. They would have their cameras and their phones, taking pictures, and cheering, clapping and waving. It was great.”

The bus either stopped at the senior’s home or place of work to spend a few minutes with them. The students were joined by their parents, siblings and co-workers as they received their graduation packets.

Included in the packets were their diploma, sash, medals and cord to wear with their cap and gown – and a special treat from the cooks. As Riley presented the packets, he would also present each senior with their “final PCHS pepperoni roll.”

“It was one of the most rewarding days I’ve had,” Beam said. “It was one of the most tiring, but it was rewarding to see those kids out there.”

Some of the seniors wore their cap and gown, while others opted to be more casual. A few students were unaware of the bus trip and were completely surprised when it pulled off the road.

“Andrew Via had no idea we were coming,” Beam said. “His mom kept it from him. She brought his cap and gown [to his work] and balloons because he can’t come to graduation. He’s shipping out – he’s joining the service and has to ship out a week before graduation. So he was working. He was filthy with grease all over his clothes. God bless him, he was at work and he came out and we gave him his certificates and his packet. You could tell that he was so surprised by it.”

The graduation bus was also joined by Deputy Bradley Nelson, who provided a police escort to some of the homes for added flair.

“I talked to him on different occasions [during the day] just to express to him how much we appreciated it,” Beam said. “He was enjoying it too. He said, ‘you know, graduations come, and go and you forget about it, but these kids will never forget this graduation.’”

Beam joked that he was afraid this special graduation might set a precedent, but felt the seniors deserved some extra recognition.

“I told Ruth, ‘you may have created a monster here,’” Beam said, laughing.

“This is a special group of kids,” he continued. “We tried to make it as special for them as we possibly could.”

Details concerning the graduation ceremony set for June 20 will be released closer to time of the event.

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