JOHNSON CREEK — The Johnson Creek High School Class of 2019 turned tassels on their mortarboards Sunday, becoming alumni at the conclusion of commencement exercises at the school’s Weis Center auditorium.

Welcoming the 45 graduates and their family and friends was School District of Johnson Creek Superintendent Dr. Michael Garvey. He noted that this commencement was special to him for two reasons: his son was a member of the class, and the Class of 2019 was in kindergarten when he first arrived at the district.

“I have observed this class throughout their entire educational career,” Garvey said. “I have been impressed with their dedication and success in the classroom and extracurricular arena. The accomplishments of these seniors speak for themselves.”

Garvey then introduced Johnson Creek Education Foundation representative Ronald Roehl, who presented the district’s Distinguished Alumnus Award to the ceremony’s keynote speaker, Dr. Aaron Best.

Best is a 1991 graduate of Johnson Creek. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Steven’s Point, continuing on to St. George’s University School of Medicine and completing his residency at the University of Minnesota School of Medicine. From 2004-13, Best was an internal medicine specialist at the Dean Clinic in Janesville. He then moved to Austin, Texas, where he still resides with his family.

“It is an honor to be back in Johnson Creek to receive this award,” Best said. “I have been to a number of different cities, but it is always great to be back in Johnson Creek.”

Addressing the graduates, he said, “Twenty-eight years ago, I was up here with you guys. It seems like yesterday. My feeling is that JCHS presents all of us with many opportunities — the key is opportunities.

“I am sure many of you will go in to colleges, trade school, the workforce or the military,” Best continued. “As you progress into the next phase of your life, you will have many opportunities. These are important to you as they will broaden your horizons, spread your wings, and advance you as person, and in turn, that will advance your careers. I cannot impress upon exactly how important it is to take advantage of these opportunities when they present themselves to you.”

Best told the graduates the toughest part of facing opportunities is that they require change.

“Whether they take you to a new city, introduce you to a new cohort of colleagues, new teachers or professors, however, you can never further yourself without those opportunities to further your career,” he said. “In the long run, they will benefit you. I challenge you all to maximize all of the opportunities that come toward you in the near future.”

There were five student speakers as well at Sunday’s commencement, all them graduating summa cum laude. Speaking were Zachary Johnson, Kittana Kulig, Anthony Purpi, Jamison Richardt and Tyler Vaughn.

Johnson focused on how people need other people in their lives to succeed.

“We were taught the skills here to succeed in life, like leadership, teamwork and how to react when confronted with a problem,” he began. “Throughout our whole experience, we have been thrown into different roles to achieve this, whether it was academics or athletics. For me, my coaches throughout the years taught me the first two; the final one was best taught to me by (technology education teacher) Mr. Ray Lauersdorf. This was done in many ways. I think the most important thing we’ve learned in Johnson Creek is how much we need each other to succeed.”

Johnson recounted many of the challenges he and his mother had to overcome, including the passing of his biological father, an abusive stepfather and how they were considered “social outcasts.”

“My mother dropped out of high school, but went back for her GED and continued on to earn her master’s degree from a prestigious college,” Johnson said. “Today, she runs a multi-million dollar business. This school served as my support system. We need to learn how to be accepted by a community, without prejudice, and give our children a communal support system. The teachers and coaches here filled the voids of our missing or disengaged parents. They saw children with lots of potential, but were at a loss on how to help. If you see us on this graduation stage, then we have a good chance of making it in life.”

He related how he and his friend would hang out and help each other in bad times.

“We knew how to seek each other’s help, and this is what kept us all together,” Johnson said, adding that sports helped all of them as well, joking that in their sophomore year, they learned that water-ballooning was not a sanctioned WIAA sport.

In conclusion, Johnson listed a number of teachers, including those when he was in elementary school, who had helped the Class of 2019 throughout the years.

“There is no magic formula for success, but we were all given the skills we need to make proper choices in our lives, no matter what direction it takes us,” he advised.

Kulig spoke next.

“As we navigated through high school no two paths have been the same,” she said. “Some of you had family, friends or relationship problems. Teachers, grades, SATs, ACTs, college choices, joining the military, finding a career path … the list can go on and on. A high school diploma is the most wonderful tool in the world, one that opens many doors and opportunities for any one lucky enough to have one. With a diploma, comes a great responsibility.”

Kulig then discussed the number of worries that graduates might have.

“It is OK to be scared of the future,” she continued. “You might think many of the people here have their life together. Well, news flash: They don’t have their life together. Some truly have no idea what they are doing, but, people are feeling scared because society tells them that it is scary. If we do not fit social norms, then feelings of failure start to clog our minds, and we end up wondering if we will ever be happy. We doubt ourselves, just because we do not know what we want. We may not know what we want, but we do know what we do not want; and while that may not give you a lot of comfort, it’s OK. It is OK to face your fears. Take baby steps — you won’t get their quickly, but you are moving forward.”

Kulig listed a number of potential worries and anxieties.

“All I can do is offer that you are not alone,” she said. “It is a common feeling. Even the people who seem to have it all together have moments of panic once in a while.”

She then related her own fear of the future, saying she was “terrified” she could not live the life she wanted and thus would never be truly happy.

“I was able to overcome it because someone was always there to tell me to take a deep breath and walk me through it,” Kulig said. “All I can tell you is that you are not alone, and you should share your anxieties to confirm you are not alone. You will soon realize how much that will help you. I found the courage to say something to someone, and it felt great at the end.”

Kulig concluded by thanking the teachers for “seeing the potential in me that I never saw in myself.”

In his remarks, Purpi joked he found inspiration for his speech three days before graduation.

He began by talking about things he could have talked about, but chose not to.

“I had special memories of the teachers I have had over the last four years,” Purpi said. “There is no way I could fit all of that in a speech and meet the time limit. For me, though, this was a year of ‘last times.’ The last time I would sit down for a class at Johnson Creek High School. The last time I would walk onto a football field. The last time I would see all the important educators in my life in one building.”

Purpi then listed the teachers who were retiring or leaving the school this year, as well.

“All of them, too, experienced their last days — as an educator at Johnson Creek,” he continued. “All of them will have a lasting impression of me, whether that was in the classroom, on the field or just teaching me about life. I am sad to say goodbye for the last time, but small lessons that they have taught me and memories I will hold close will be a part of my life.”

Richardt told attendees that he had been a troublemaker during his early elementary years. He said he hoped everyone saw him as “a smart, and hopefully, a funny guy,” but he was not always like that, saying that he often was disciplined or in trouble back then.

He noted that a second-grade teacher changed his life.

“She realized I was acting up because I saw school as too easy and not challenging enough,” he recalled. “She pushed me harder than ever in school She also pushed me outside of school. Chess has been a huge hobby of mine, and that is also because of her. She taught me as a second-grader, which at the time, my mom thought was too complex of a game. Within a few months, I was beating high-schoolers, teachers and, obviously, my mom.”

Richardt then said “when you go through high school, it is hard to realize how much support you have,” noting that it is easy to forget how many people do so much for you, as a student.

“I want to give all of you a big thanks, for all of you shaped me. High school may be over, but we also start anew. Life is like a game of chess — you need to know how the pieces move, but you have to create your own strategy,” he concluded. “There may be strategies already out there, so you can use those … or you can use your own.”

Vaughn was the final commencement speaker.

“We spent four years working hard to get here today,” she said. “Over those four years, I have learned many things, but one thing I learned I want to share with the younger students: Do not waste your time while you are here. Take advantage of the opportunities you are given at Johnson Creek High School. Enjoy a fun class, a club, a sport or anything that peaks your interest, even if that is just hanging out with friends.”

Vaughn said that the one of her favorite memories was playing foosball with a Matchbox car with her friends.

“My point is, do not look back at high school and not have anything fun to remember,” she said. “Don’t waste your time in high school. Just don’t — you will not enjoy what comes after.”

Garvey then presented an Academic Excellence Scholarship Award to Julia Kulakowski and a Wisconsin Technical Excellence Scholar Award to Spencer Weber.

High school principal Neil O’Connell and school board President Richard Wrensch presented the students their diplomas as class advisers Sandy Winter, Courtney Morris, Marcus Novak and Brady Ramsier read their names.

Once receiving their diplomas, each individual turned the tassel on his or her mortarboard.

The graduates proceeded to the gym for a class picture.

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