SULLIVAN — Courage, family, friendship and pride in the place they call home. Those were some of the important things that Sumner Memorial High School’s Class of 2022 top scholars and guest speakers touched on in heartfelt remarks delivered at graduation last Thursday night.
Their reflections were especially poignant given the commencement exercises were the last to occur in the white-sided building shaded by stately old maple trees on Route 1.
Its first class of seniors graduated in 1953. That the Sumner High building is still held dear by many of its graduates was made plain at the final graduation in the Clint Ritchie Gymnasium. Like a school reunion, the graduating seniors’ families and friends, teachers, former faculty, past and present staff and community members hugged and warmly greeted each other in the old gym. They then sat down on folding chairs or took seats in the bleachers where a big net, hanging high above, brimmed with blue and white balloons. In keeping with tradition, the balloons later were released on the graduating seniors seated below.
Led by baton-twirling junior Julian Dennison, the Class of 2022 members stepped through the gym’s front entrance illuminated with tiny white lights. The 45 graduating seniors slowly strode down the aisle. Each senior had a white rosebud, with a tiny green and white lobster buoy dangling from it, pinned to their royal blue gown. Each also held a long-stemmed white rose. Class members decided on the buoy and rose stem as a salute to their late classmate Tanner Thibault, who died in a 2021 motor vehicle accident in Gouldsboro.
The flowers were later gathered and presented to Thibault’s father, Mike Thibault.
“It was important to our Sumner family that Tanner be remembered as a friend and a player [baseball],” Sumner Principal J. T. Green told the audience filling the gym.
In addition, the principal thanked the Class of 2022’s advisors Lisa Blanchette and Rachel Mathewson for all their steadfast work during months of uncertainty about whether the COVID-19 pandemic would truly wane and make it possible to hold Sumner’s last graduation in person before the original high school building is razed. He recognized Guidance Department staffers Lucille Null and Robert Kennedy for their efforts on the seniors’ behalf as well as Maintenance Director Wayne Newenham and crew for their efforts in preparing the high school building and what remains of the grounds for commencement.
A 1996 Sumner grad, state Rep. William “Billy Bob” Faulkingham (R-Winter Harbor) shared his thoughts as an invited speaker. He, too, lost a classmate after his graduation and expressed his sympathy to the seniors.
“I wasn’t the valedictorian or top of my class. I was pretty average,” Faulkingham told the students, but that didn’t keep him from pursuing his aspirations and achieving more than he would have imagined back then. He urged them to follow their hearts, be happy in their lives and be kind to others. “Kindness is contagious,” he noted. “Pass it on.”
Bound for Ohio’s Cedarville University, the Class of 2022’s valedictorian, Rachel Hastey, gave a moving address to her classmates. The young Sullivan woman described herself as a shy and quiet person. She recalled her trepidation going from a small home-school group to Sumner High. She singled out the high school’s cross-country team for welcoming her and easing that passage her freshman year. That team became her school family and built her confidence to forge ahead and overcome her discomfort.
“It didn’t matter how well I ran. It was more important to support each other,” Hastey said. She said the fact that she was able to stand and address them from the stage was proof of her own personal growth. She urged her classmates to speak up and “make a lasting impression.”
The Class of 2022’s salutatorian, Alexis Coombs, in turn paid tribute to Hastey for being a steadfast friend since kindergarten. As kindergartners, the pair used to coordinate their outfits wearing matching pigtails and pink shirts and even shared their first-and-only time out in the first grade. She also recognized Colin Piper when she transferred from Mountain View to Hancock Grammar School.
“I was a nervous third-grader, but from the day I walked in, someone special took me under his wing like a brother,” she remembered. “I want to thank you for the countless times you have teased me about fishing, chatted about life and had me laughing until my stomach hurt.”
Talk about laughing. Sumner Class of 1976 member Eric Herlan had many in the audience in stitches, a hard feat to achieve in the Downeast region, whose inhabitants are known for their wry humor and deadpan delivery. The Portland attorney also is a proud member of the former Winter Harbor Grammar School’s Class of 1966.
Billed as Sumner’s commencement speaker, Herlan knows well Mainers’ notoriety and love of storytelling. He had a few to tell, too. In fact, one of his greatest high school achievements occurred in the very same gym. Standing at least 6-foot-4 in height, he was an obvious pick for the Tigers’ basketball team. And, he distinguished himself by scoring “the most points for the other team in a single season.”
Caddying summers on Winter Harbor’s Grindstone Neck Golf Course, the Drummond Woodsum lawyer recalled the honor of lugging the shag bag containing loads golf balls out onto the links. The caddie would then run the requisite distance and stand still like a deer about to be hit by a car. The golfers would then aim at the caddie and repeatedly hit the balls at him. “Where was OSHA?” the attorney shrieked on stage.
Still, the Sumner graduate’s lack of athletic ability and child abuse on the links did not prevent him from forging ahead. For more than 30 years, Herlan has practiced law in Maine representing public school districts on a wide variety of legal issues such as special education. He has practiced in state and federal courts including U.S. District Court and before the Maine Supreme Court. Throughout his career, he has taken pride in the quality education he received both at Sumner and the former Winter Harbor Grammar School. While he and his family live in Brunswick, Winter Harbor remains his home too.
“Never apologize because you don’t go to a fancy school or come from a certain ZIP code,” he told the graduates.