ADAMS TWP — More than 250 graduates officially said goodbye to Mars High School Thursday night at a packed commencement ceremony in the auditorium.
The emotional evening featured plenty of laughs and hugs, flowers and tears. It also included goodbyes to outgoing Superintendent William Pettigrew and to school board member Ross McConnell, who recently died after an illness.
Smiles permeated through the high school's hallways before the ceremony as the graduates readied themselves and gathered in the cafeteria.
Teacher Bonnie Botti stood near the front of the room with a box of flowers, pinning them on students who waited nearby.
She knew them by name and carried a wide smile for each one before moving on to the next. The advanced English teacher had nothing but praise for the outgoing Class of 2013.
“They've been my favorite in many, many years,” she said. “I am genuinely sad to see them go.”
Olivia Webb of Valencia harbored similar emotions. She's excited to move on to study biochemistry at Grove City College in the fall, but added there were mixed emotions Thursday night.
“I know it sounds weird, but I'm going to miss all of my teachers,” she said.
The graduates became increasingly restless as the clock ticked toward 6:30 p.m., when they finally assembled and migrated to the packed auditorium.
The ceremony included speeches from several Class of 2013 officers, like President Anna Harjung and Vice President Luke Barbour.
All in attendance also recognized a moment of silence for McConnell, who served as a bus driver since 2005 and a school board member since 2007.
Graduate Adam Golden addressed his classmates, referring to 13 points of advice for his class, the number reflecting the year of its graduation.
He managed to mix social media references with quotes from Robert F. Kennedy, and challenged his fellow classmates to make a difference by using their education and working together.
“Any person can make a tiny splash, and the ripples will build up,” Golden said. “A group of people can tackle much larger problems than any individual can.”
Members of the Class of 2013 weren't the only ones saying goodbye to the Mars School District.
Pettigrew is retiring after 26 years with the district and said he couldn't help but feel nostalgic.
“I'm feeling sad because this is my last graduation, and I've seen a lot of them,” he said. “Right now I'm just hoping there's a life after superintendency.”
Pettigrew didn't mince words for his last graduating class, and offered them one final piece of advice for success in life.
“Always do the very best you can do,” he said.
After the ceremony, Jim Wilkinson presented his daughter Brianna with a bouquet of flowers. He admitted that the graduation of his first daughter came with mixed emotions, but added he can't help but be excited for her future.
“It makes me feel old,” he said with a smile.
“It's definitely bittersweet. But I'm excited that she gets to move on to new things.”