Holley turns school parking lot into drive-in for graduation

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 27 June 2020 at 8:00 pm

‘We are Holley Strong. This hasn’t been easy but we got through this together’ – Sue Cory, principal

Photos by Tom Rivers

HOLLEY – These graduates walk to a stage set up in front of the Holley Junior-Senior High School parking lot, where graduation was held today.

The state has allowed outdoor graduations at drive-in movie theaters. Holley considered having the ceremony at a drive-in, but there isn’t one very close by. The closest are at Middleport in Niagara County and Silver Lake in Wyoming County.

“Why do you have to go to a drive-in?” said Susan Cory, the high school principal. “We can turn our school into a drive-in.”

This sign greets students and their families at the high school parking lot.

Cory and Brian Bartalo, the district superintendent, said seniors wanted to have a ceremony with the class together.

The state has capped the attendance for outdoor graduations to 150 people, unless people are in vehicles. If they are in a car or truck, they don’t count against maximum number, Holley school officials said.

Without the vehicles, Holley would have only been able to allow each graduate to bring one spectator for the ceremony.

The class has 81 members, but three foreign exchange students have returned to their home countries in Greenland, Spain and Portugal.

Holley was able to keep commencement at its usual time, the last Saturday in June at 10 a.m., rather than later in the summer when the state might ease restrictions on crowd sizes.

“Our main goal was to have everybody together and have it today,” Bartalo said before the ceremony this morning.

Brian Gay, who is headed to GCC, poses with his family’s vehicle in the parking lot. Most of the cars were decorated for the occasion. Before the ceremony, Holley played rock music, including “Sweet Caroline” by Neil Diamond.

Brian was happy to reconnect with so many of his classmates.

“I love being here and seeing everybody,” he said. “It’s good to see them all again.”

Jamel Hildreth accepts his diploma from Sue Cory, the high school principal, and Brian Bartalo, the district superintendent.

In her message to the graduates and their families and friends, Cory said this group of a seniors is “a history-making class.” They haven’t been inside the school buildings since March 13, due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We are Holley Strong,” Cory said. “This hasn’t been easy but we got through this together.”

Morgan Cary, the class vice president, said the Class of 2020 missed the last 67 days of school.

“We are the champions of Senior Skip Day.”

She announced the class gift: a mosaic with tiles designed by each of the seniors.

The mosaic made by the seniors will be displayed inside the school.

Valedictorian Tyra Shepherd said the class is very fortunate to live in a community that cares about the students. She noted how Holley has rallied around a student battling cancer. The community has been generous when several families lost their home when a four-unit apartment building burned down in January.

“This is a very supportive community,” said Shepherd, who will major in cognitive science at Brown University.

She appreciates student attention at Holley with the smaller class sizes. Holley teachers also distributed signs to all of the seniors to put in their front yards. Drivers have kept up with beeps to celebrate the students since the signs went up on April 24.

“We have an incredible support system,” she said. “Our community will always rally behind us.”

Tia Brien walks to the stage to accept her diploma. Holley erected a stage in front of the parking lot for today’s ceremony. Usually commencement is at the football stadium unless it rains. Then it’s at the school auditorium.

Ally Benson, the class salutatorian, said Holley has many caring teachers. The seniors also had an amazing first half of the school year. The group, when they were freshmen three years ago, shocked the district by winning the spirit award over the seniors. That remains a highlight for the Class of 2020.

“Thank you friends for giving me memories that will last the rest of my life,” said Benson, who is majoring in physical therapy at Nazareth College in the fall.

The top 10 graduates include Mikaela Auch, Ally Benson, Kamryn Berner, Autumn Bieber, Megan Harrington, Sarah Harrington, Bradley Kingdollar, Tyra Shepherd, Cody Tanis and Rachel Vanelli.

Jenna Miles sings the national anthem near the beginning of the two-hour program. Kohl Morgan, the class president, led the group in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Holley presented the diplomas to graduates in alphabetical order. The first three graduates to receive their diplomas include Sierra Apicella, Mikaela Auch and Nicholas Ballard.

Alexander Brimacomb watches the graduation while standing next to his family’s vehicle in the parking lot. The car was decorated with a big sign including his picture.

Holley teacher Matthew Hennard gave the commencement address. He has worked at Holley for 10 years as a social studies teacher, middle school coordinator and a teacher on special assignment. Before joining Holley, Hennard served four years with the U.S. Air Force.

Matthew Hennard

Hennard told the class they have clearly demonstrated perseverance and togetherness during their time at Holley. The group remains optimistic about the future despite the recent challenges with the pandemic, national unrest and other uncertainty.

“You have faced the unimaginable and so many of you have a hopeful and positive attitude,” Hennard said.

This year’s Holley seniors also experienced some things no other class has – good things. They received a parade from their teachers, who went by the students’ homes. There were personalized visits from the principal, a drive-through prom and many expressions of support from the community.

“This is a generation that knows how to make the best of a bad situation,” he said.

He urged them to choose kindness, understanding and respect in how they respond to others.

Victoria Rich gave her graduation cap a fancy design and a message, “I Winged It.” She plans to study fashion design in college.

Roberto Castillo moves the tassel on his cap to signify graduating. He is headed to the University of Buffalo to major in  television and film arts.

Tony Farruggia has this vehicle all decked out for graduation.

Sean Kennedy wore some cool 2020 glasses for commencement.

Holley teachers and staff watched the ceremony in back by the school, sitting at least 6 feet apart.

A Holley fire truck leads the seniors on a parade through the community. They are headed down North Main Street.

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