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Hilltowns Archives —The Altamont Enterprise, July 6, 2006

Tears and laughter mingle at Commencement
BKW remembers Anthony Hill

By Jarrett Carroll

ALBANY — Reflecting on their past, Berne-Knox-Westerlo graduates honored the life of Anthony Hill as they walked across the stage of the Egg on Saturday to receive their diplomas and move forward with their plans for the future.

Commencement has taken place off "the Hill" at Albany’s Egg for the past nine years.

Emotions ran high as the Class of 2006, consisting of 80 students, looked back on the death of their classmate Hill in December and the settled-in realization that they were gathering together for the last time.

Before the ceremony started, in a small room below the stage, graduates clad in maroon robes let out both hoots and howls as well as tears.

Groups of male students slapped each other’s hands like they were competing in a sporting event. A few female students wept while being consoled by friends Others, looking nervous, simply stared about taking in the scene.

One could feel the energy build as proud parents, relatives, and friends filed into the seats of the theater, waiting for the graduates to make their final BKW appearance on the stage below. Once the graduates formed two rows of maroon at the top tier of the theater, the lights dimmed and a slide show set to music began.

With the occasional "aawww" coming from the crowd in unison, and bursts of cheers and laughter at other times, pictures of babies juxtaposed with senior portraits rolled across the large screen. After all 80 students were showcased, a series of yearbook-style school photographs were shown, including a Bulldogs’ sports montage set to Queen’s We are the Champions.

The slide show ended with a comical home video of Anthony Hill singing a pop song as a friend played a keyboard in the style of the American Idol television show.

The crowd loved it, with big laughs all around.

Tribute to a Bulldog

Then, shifting into a more somber moment, a pre-recorded message from Hill’s mother, Jackie Hill, served as the commencement speech.

Congratulating the Class of 2006, Mrs. Hill apologized for not being there in person, and said she thought it best to record her message. She told graduates to always be proud of where they came from and to remember that changing the world doesn’t have to be a grand gesture, but can be as simple as a smile.

"People like to be around happy people," said Mrs. Hill. "You don’t have to say a word; just smile."

Thanking students and teachers for their unending love, care, and support during her son’s battle with lymphoma, Mrs. Hill told the class to not be sad about Anthony’s passing and to embrace the day as proud graduates.

"He was proud to be a Berne-Knox-Westerlo Bulldog," Mrs. Hill said in the recording. "He would not want you to be sad today."

Anthony Hill died on Dec. 6, 2005, three-and-a-half years after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He was 17.

Hill’s death hit the small community hard, with grief counselors on hand at school after it happened.

Mrs. Hill told The Enterprise after her son’s death that she was grateful for the support he got from the community, which ranged from a large garage sale at BKW to a motorcycle run through the Hilltowns. Additionally, BKW High School students donated $3,223 to the Childhood Cancer and Blood Disorders Center at Albany Medical Center in April. Student’s from Amanda Tombari’s 12th-grade economics class designed and sold ocean blue bracelets that say "Live Fearless," and purple bracelets that says, "I Will Fight."

The two bracelets are were for Hill and BKW alum April Porter, who is also diagnosed with Hodgskins. Both Hill and Porter helped to design the bracelets.

The money donated to Albany Medical Center was used to purchase a blanket warmer, which comforts patients who undergo surgery, or whose illness causes them to be uncomfortably cold.

Hill’s support from the Hilltowns not only benefited him, but others, too, with a bone marrow drive in his honor that garnered 518 donations.

Mrs. Hill ended her speech with a special thank-you, saying, "You are all a very special family. Stop in any time."

Before the recording ended and the lights came back on, Mrs. Hill said tearfully, "Shoot for the stars and God bless you all."

The graduates’ take

The first BKW graduate to take the podium was class president, Sophia Altieri, who started her speech with a sentiment shared by many of those attending the ceremony.

"This year alone we all learned that life is far too precious to take for granted with the loss of our brother, Anthony Hill," said Altieri.

"We will travel down different paths," Altieri said, but added, "I think we can all agree we have the best family."

It was then salutatorian Evan M. Place’s turn to address the class.

"Today we face new challenges," said Place. "Are we mature enough to use this newfound freedom""You’d be surprised. Whether it’s school, work, or the military, we’ve weighed our options. We have the tools to build our future."

Taking a classic quote from Martin Luther King Jr., Place said that grades alone were not good enough in today’s multifaceted world.

"We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character — that is the goal of true education," Place quoted.

Place reminded his fellow graduates that, as they go out to pursue their personal endeavors, they have to give back in order to have a positive impact in the world.

"Remember the definition of humanity is to give something back," said Place. "And we can do it."

Christine M. Sikule, the class valedictorian, spoke to her fellow graduates, saying, "It seems just like yesterday we were at fifth-grade graduation.

"My advice is to find your passion," said Sikule, telling students to pursue work that they love and are passionate about in order to find true happiness.

"For the past year we heard, ‘What are you going to do once you graduate"’" said Sikule. She continued, saying that, after graduation, the pursuit of happiness should be the number-one priority.

"Looking at everyone in our class, I see a very diverse class," said Sikule, adding, "Each person is unique."

Sikule said that no matter where life takes each graduate, all will always have their BKW experience to look back upon and connect them through the years.

"The world is waiting to be explored," she said. "As each of us leave, remember to work hard and laugh hard."

No diploma is forgotten

As Superintendent Steven Schrade was handing out various awards to many of the graduating class, he personally acknowledged Carlene Willsie’s academic accomplishment of high honors. He apologized for not officially recognizing her achievement in the commencement program, saying it was in no way intentional. Willsie graduated as an honors student, meaning her cumulative grade-point average was above 90. She was only listed in the program as an honor society graduate.

Schrade then stopped handing out awards in order to hand out a very special BKW diploma. Acting on behalf of a program set up by the New York State Legislature in 2000 for World War II vets who dropped out of school to serve their county, Schrade presented Edward Ackroyd, who serves on BKW’s school board, with his diploma.

The state’s program grew to include veterans of the Korean conflict and, this year, the Vietnam War as well.

Ackroyd, a member of the 1968 class, ran for the school board unopposed in 2004 after Lynn Countryman stepped down; He is a veteran who left BKW to serve in Cambodia and Vietnam. Ackroyd grew up on Thompson’s Lake Road in East Berne and owns Northeast Power Supply, which he formed in 1985.

Previously BKW has only given out two other diplomas in the program to alumni who served in the Korean conflict, according to Schrade.

Ackroyd walked across the stage to accept his diploma to a standing ovation as onlookers cheered and applauded loudly. Ackroyd shook Schrade’s hand as he accepted the diploma with a modest smile on his face and a small wave to the crowd.

Ackroyd then joined the rest of the school board to hand out diplomas with Principal Mary Petrilli. Also on stage, representing BKW’s alumni association, was Kathy Stemple, who presented graduates with a certificate signifying their induction into the association.

"Acting on behalf of his good friend, Anthony Hill," Petrilli announced during the diploma ceremony, she called on William W. Grimes to accept Hill’s diploma.

The Egg erupted into thunderous applause, with every single person in the room standing and cheering as Grimes walked up the stage to accept Hill’s diploma. The loud applause lasted for more than a full minute.

Once all the students received their diplomas, Petrilli officially introduced the school’s class of 2006 to another standing ovation.

However, the class had one more official act before leaving the stage.

As students were about to initiate the traditional toss of the mortarboards, long strings of pink Silly String enveloped the top of Petrilli’s head, coming from behind the podium in several directions.

"It looks good," Petrilli, keeping her composure, said with a smile. "It’s pink."

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