At BKW, a small class with a big legacy

The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia

Scholarship shared: Kayla Heath and Taylor O’Connor walk with somber faces to accept the J. Wyatt Spencer Memorial Scholarship, given for the first time during the Berne-Knox-Westerlo graduation on June 28. Wyatt Spencer, a member of the class of 2014, died in an off-road vehicle accident in May 2009.

The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia

Hand-off: School board member Vasilios Lefkaditis passes a diploma under his handshake with a fresh Berne-Knox-Westerlo graduate on June 28.

The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia

Vocational scholarship: Christine Coons describes the award named in memory of her son, Patrick Arpei-Coons, a mechanic and entrepreneur who was killed by a bus making an illegal turn in 2012. The award was given to culinary student Megan Longendyke during the June 28 Berne-Knox-Westerlo graduation ceremony.

The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia

To anticipate and remember: Trenton Hess looks up to his friend, recent Berne-Knox-Westerlo graduate Alex Chauvot, during the post-ceremony reception where families took pictures and emptied tables laden with plates of cookies.

BERNE — Kelley Hurst-Hess held back tears speaking at the June 28 graduation ceremony until she described a group of Berne-Knox-Westerlo students who helped raise funds for a scholarship in memory of their friend, James Wyatt Spencer, who would have graduated that day.

Given for the first time this year, the award was split between two friends of Spencer; he died five years ago in May when his off-road vehicle rolled over.

By the end of Hurst-Hess’s speech, the award’s co-recipients, Kayla Heath and Taylor O’Connor, were crying, too. The crowd had fallen silent as she spoke, but applause roared through the theater as the pair stood up and hugged each other among the rows of their classmates sitting on the stage. They walked to Hurst-Hess and the three held a long embrace.

It was the tender climax to a midday ceremony that began and ended with brassy music, intimate speeches, jokes, and 53 graduates turning their tassels before throwing their mortarboards into the air and singing the school’s alma mater along with the band: “Going onward, ever onward\Berne-Knox to the last.”

Family and friends from the rural Hilltowns sat watching in the dimly lit theater inside The Egg in Albany but did not fill it up.

The soon-to-be graduates lined the railing at the top of the room as they watched a slideshow of pictures from their time at BKW. They joined school board members and administrators on stage in single-line processions from each side. Pairs of students joined at the center of the stage and waved, threw their arms around each other’s shoulders, and, in one case, pulled out a smartphone to take a selfie.

The class of 2014 sat in maroon gowns and mortarboards facing the audience for the ceremony.

Secondary School Principal Brian Corey, dressed in a lavender shirt and tie with a black jacket, began his remarks with a quote attributed to Henry Ford, the founder of the Ford Motor Company, who said, “Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.”

“I wish you everything that you deserve in the years ahead,” Corey told the students beside him. “It has been an honor and a privilege watching you progress through success.”

Top scholars speak

Rhianon Sherry, who will study hotel and restaurant management at Schenectady Community College, gave the salutatory, encouraging her classmates to embrace the pride of others in the room.

“Let us thank the teachers who are devoted to introduce us to new subjects, who tolerated our frequent cases of senioritis, who never stopped for a moment to contemplate giving extra help, and who have consistently supported us,” said Sherry. “You have all had a lasting, positive impact on every one of us.”

Reflecting on the thought of never seeing her classmates regularly, she challenged them to succeed by pushing themselves outside of what’s comfortable, to have compassion, and to do their best and never settle for less.

Samuel Gerardi began his valedictory speech with a greeting and a warning.

“There’s always the delightful thought that it can end up on YouTube if this speech crashes and burns,” said Gerardi. “If it comes to that, you can find exits behind me, on your right and left side, and in the back. And, in the case of a water landing, your seats may also double as a flotation device.”

Gerardi mentioned Spencer, who was known as a skilled baseball player with a fast pitch.

“Although he is not physically here today, his memory and legacy has survived with his family and friends,” said Gerardi. “We will never forget you, Wyatt.”

He thanked BKW faculty and staff for their donations to Gerardi’s family after their house was destroyed by a fire in May. “You guys were simply amazing,” said Gerardi.

Gerardi’s voice was crisp and loud as he reminisced about his classmates, telling anecdotes met with knowing laughter.

“I was the chubby shy kid that cried a lot and was annoying and useless, but somehow I still managed,” he said of his start at BKW.

A counselor at a Christian summer camp, Gerardi said he did not want to preach his religious and conservative values from the lectern but that his faith has led him to some important life lessons.

High school is preparation for finding meaning in what one does in life, Gerardi said, urging his classmates to be curious.

“A few weeks ago, my father and I were working on my car, a Camaro,” Gerardi said. “All of a sudden, the antifreeze just started to pour out of the bottom. In order to diagnose the problem, my father told me to take off the starter. After doing so, I simply left, knowing that my mission was done, refusing to venture into a curious state — I just didn’t care. I could have discovered it was just a broken fuse plug, but I was not curious. I had no interest and, thus, I did not learn the issue myself.”

Gerardi read versed from Proverbs, telling his classmates to earnestly seek wisdom and knowledge to find their purposes.

“I ask you all not to take your education for granted,” said Gerardi. “Learn from your mistakes, seek knowledge, and stay curious.”

Teacher of the Year

The class of 2014 chose to honor social studies teacher Jim Lemire. The award is given for a teacher’s dedication to students and faculty.

Gerardi, the class president, told the crowd of the college-level class on government he took this year through a computer hook-up to a classroom in another school.

“We weren't able to grasp much from the distance-learning class, but he offered to help us,” Gerardi said of Lemire. “And, honestly, I haven’t found the grade yet, but I think I did well simply because this guy spent the time getting up very early, getting to school well before seven; we met him there, and he taught us a lot of the curriculum we went through and learned a lot.”

Lemire, a varsity volleyball coach, said he has taught eight classes in the past two years.

“I can tell you that any teacher that puts themselves into what they do realizes that they don’t just teach students; the students teach them,” said Lemire.

‘I hope you dance’

The message of teacher James Porter’s commencement address was summed up in his aunt’s words on her 90th birthday: “Enjoy life.”

 To do this, he encouraged the members of the Class of 2014 to surround themselves with people they love, to laugh, to remain students, to be proud of their decisions, and to play.

Berne-Knox-Westerlo teacher James Porter's commencement address from The Altamont Enterprise on Vimeo.

“I’m sure you remember the three ‘P’s,’” said Porter. “Prepared, prompt, polite — sound advice for not just for math class but for any endeavor.”

Porter, a math teacher, noted that he continues to play baseball in spite of passing years. The number 8 on his jersey, he said, is infinity if turned on its side.

He ended his speech by quoting from a Lee Ann Womack song, telling the class, “I hope you dance.”

Scholarships in memoriam

The list of awards was nearly completed when special speakers announced three awards to remember BKW graduates and a student who have died in recent years.

Sandra Quay represented the Class of 1965 on stage, giving its memorial scholarship to Lauren Pierce. With the idea of memorializing a 1965 alumna, she said, the class decided last year to give a scholarship for each graduating class.

“One of our classmates went to her job and came home, and the next morning she was gone,” said Quay. “And it made us all feel that life was very precious, and that we need to celebrate the life of our classmates.”

This year’s award was given in memory of Viola Wagoner Durocher, who died of cancer in November 2013.

“She was a person who was a very artistic young lady,” Quay said of Durocher, who was the salutatorian of the Class of 1965. “She did a lot of volunteering work.”

After Quay, the Coons family surrounded the lectern. Christine Coons spoke to an audience that sat in silence as a baby cried and she told them about her son, Patrick Arpei-Coons, who was killed in a car accident.

“There are many scholarship and grants available to students who choose to continue on an academic path,” Coons said, “but little assistance available to those who pursue a vocational career.” She announced Megan Longendyke, a culinary student, as the $1,500 scholarship recipient.

A bus took an illegal left-hand turn and struck Arpei-Coons when he was driving his motorcycle to work in August 2012. He was 21.

“Words cannot express the horror of this experience and it is difficult to know what to do under such circumstances,” said Coons. “You want desparately to find a way to keep your loved one present, to honor them and maintain their legacy. And, while you want to make sure the world will never forget, it is also critically important that Patrick be remembered for the amazing way he lived his life and to not be defined by the tragic events that changed everything.”

Coons explained that her son was an intelligent and ambitious young teenager who was frustrated in a classroom but read about finance and real estate to plan for his future. She said a prominent car dealership recruited Arpei-Coons and paid him a handsome salary — the figure was nearly three times his age.

“They heard from other mechanics about his impressive work ethic and skills,” she said. “Patrick applied for his first mortgage at age 19 and was turned down. He was told that, although he earned the income to qualify, he has no established credit history.” Arpei-Coons returned one year later and was pre-approved for a $300,000 loan.

In a final summation of Arpei-Coons’ message to the awardee, Coons said, “Use what you’ve got to work for what you want to take care of those you love and to make your magic happen.”

Before announcing the winners of the J. Wyatt Spencer Memorial Scholarship, Kelley Hurst-Hess said the award would never again be granted in a more important year, since Spencer’s classmates were applying for it.

“The saying goes, ‘It takes a village to raise a child,’ and that may be true,” Hurst-Hess said. “But it also takes a village to reconcile the upheaval after a child’s passing, and sometimes, just sometimes, it takes a very special group of young men and women to show all of us how to do it right. This is the Class of 2014.”

She told the crowd how she had called the district’s guidance office to inquire about how many applications had been collected just before the deadline. No one had applied.

Hurst-Hess, the vice-chair for the scholarship, said she called a meeting with the Class of 2014 and told them they were worthy of the $5,000 scholarship. Speaking with students and parents, she said, it appeared that the students didn’t view themselves as worthy of the award or that someone else should have it.

“He was the kid who broke up fights, made his friends laugh on bad days, and on good days; sat at the lunch table with the kids who were by themselves; or gave the new kid in school a smile and handshake and directed them to their classes,” Hurst-Hess told the crowd. “He was the kid who admonished other kids for bullying. These are not my words. These are the words and the examples given by Wyatt’s classmates.”

From next year forward, she said, the scholarship will be given in memory of Spencer and in honor of the Class of 2014.

More Hilltowns News

  • Former Berne-Knox-Westerlo treasurer Stacy King-McElhiney is stepping up to be the district’s newest business manager.

  • Following the closure of Rensselaerville Volunteer Ambulance, the Albany County Sheriff’s Office has had to offer an ambulance with an emergency medical provider as well as a paramedic in a fly car. This has led to an increase in the costs for the three Hilltowns served: Berne, Westerlo, and Rensselaerville.

  • The Berne-Knox-Westerlo Board of Education is putting up for a Nov. 2 vote two propositions for capital projects — for $15 million and $5 million. After a lengthy debate over whether the capital project was a “blank check” or a means of improving student education, three board members voted yes, one voted no, and one abstained.