Steamboat Springs Soroco High School commencement speaker Sam McLeod said the size of the crowd at Saturday's graduation ceremony was a testament to how much the 2009 senior class meant to the entire community.
McLeod, an English teacher at Soroco, said he was honored and humbled to accept the seniors' request to deliver the address, giving him a final opportunity to impart some wisdom on them. But the audience in the high school's gymnasium, a crowd he estimated at 500 people, added some unanticipated pressure to complete his task.
He forged ahead, challenging the 27 graduates to continue touching the lives of those around them and, individually, define the expectations for their lives to leave their marks on the world.
"Pursue your own dreams. Pursue your own definitions of greatness," McLeod said. "Have success."
Judging by the remarks of valedictorian Kimberly Rossi and salutatorian Traci Schlegel, that's exactly what the class of 2009 plans to do.
Rossi encouraged her fellow graduates, 15 of which she said she went to school with since kindergarten, to each find a way to make a difference.
Schlegel said she remembered being a kid when life was easy. She said the only thing she wanted to do was grow up.
"I guess that the time has come," Schlegel said. "The future awaits us through those doors."
Before the speeches, Soroco counselor Lisa Omori recognized the more than $57,000 in scholarships earned by 10 members of the class.
Omori also told the audience that Rossi and Beth Strait had earned associate's degrees from Colorado Northwestern Community College during high school. She said Kaydee Peckham was a few credits short of earning her associate's degree from Colorado Mountain College. And Omori recognized Chelsea Nason, who "took a bold step" graduating from Soroco a semester early and just completed her first semester at Mesa State College.
Before McLeod's commencement address, Tatum Lombardi, Kimberly Rossi and her cousin, Sarajane Rossi, stepped on stage to recognize their childhood friend Clinton Koler, who was born with Down syndrome and overcame a number of obstacles to graduate Saturday. They each said a few words about Koler.
"I speak for the whole class when I say we're honored to have Clinton Koler in our class," Lomardi said, choking up.
Koler stepped on stage and hugged each girl before Lombardi gave him a gallon jar of pickles. She later said that since they were young children, Koler has always loved pickles.
Koler's mom, Stephanie Bratton, beamed after the ceremony, smiling as family and friends congratulated her son. She said doctors told her when Koler was born that he would be limited socially. And they told her he wouldn't go very far, she said.
Bratton struggled trying to put the emotion of seeing her son walk across the stage into words.
"I was very proud," she said.