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North Stonington - In an intimate gathering on the Wheeler Library grounds Thursday, North Stonington educators regaled Wheeler High School's 55 new graduates and four foreign exchange students with stream-of-consciousness lists of people, events and themes from their 13 years of schooling.
Superintendent Peter Nero's list included the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that occurred when the graduates were kindergarteners, The Walking Dead television series and the election of President Barack Obama.
Class speaker Christopher Sandford, who left his post as principal of Wheeler in November to become headmaster at Woodstock Academy, focused on challenges such as "massive debt," "war in every government," and an "impending ice age." His inventory of doom-and-gloom ultimately gave way to a message of optimism.
"I know each of you perseveres and I know that each of you will be successful in your endeavors," he said.
"Wheeler is a great place," he continued. "… It allowed you to discover who you are in a safe place."
He went on to point out challenges individual students had overcome. One girl struggled with a broken leg; a boy managed to drive his car onto a guard rail.
Another highlight of the ceremony was recognition of Nathan Howell, 18, a volunteer firefighter who in July rescued an elderly neighbor who had gotten caught beneath a tractor while mowing the lawn. Howell called 911 and removed the tractor from the man.
"Your actions for the day are not overlooked and are truly a credit to you and your family," First Selectman Nicholas H. Mullane II read from a letter penned by State Police Lt. Michael Thomas.
Graduate Gianna Balerna, 17, said she was excited, nervous and "a little sad" to leave Wheeler.
"I just can't believe it," said Balerna, who will attend University of Connecticut at Avery Point in the fall.
For families, the moment was filled with pride and surprise at the years that had passed.
"I feel like an old lady," said Karin Kuechler, grandmother of graduate Dylan Campbell. "It was just yesterday he was a young boy, and now he's a young man. He's all grown up."
WHEELER HIGH SCHOOL CLASS OF 2014
Mirandah Elaine Ackley, Natasha Christine Amaral, Alexandra Baake, Gianna Marie Balerna, Joseph John Balerna, Ethan Sterling Belz, Kyle Matthew Bergel, Magan Serena Birkbeck, Larysa Joi Blinn, Steven Christopher Bossie, Erick Riley Breckenridge, Dylan Joseph Campbell, Joseph Edward Cherenzia, Charles Clifford Cole, Andrew Scott Dean, Joseph Frank Dellaporta, Helena Marion DiScuillo, Carter James Dole, Cody Alan Elvin, Katrina Lily Fedors, William Robert Grigg, Christopher Deven Hilbert, Nathan Gregory Howell, William Crofts Jeckel, Gage Edward Lapinski, Jared Matthew Limpert, David James Main, Matthew Drew McGowan, Sofia Michelle McKenna, Kendall Patricia Marie Metcalf.
Faith Elaine Miner, Jessica Morgan, Jillien Elizabeth Morrone, Jessica Ferance Muller, Carolyn Ann Pabst, Sabrina Lynn Palmer, Kayla Rose Peterson, Kenneth Joseph Ravenelle, Stephen Noah Reck, Nathan Alexander Robillard, Charles Curtis Rogers, Allison Rose Russell, Richard Thomas Schmidt, Leonardo Sierra, Troy Joseph Stefanski, Thomas Louis Steinbrecher, Ashley Virginia Storey, Rachel Ann Storey, Andrew Wade Swift, Ryan Michael Sylvestre, Logan Connor Tashea, Hanna Elizabeth Vetrovec, Katelyn Marie Williams, Emily Michelle Zinz.
Foreign exchange students who will receive Certificates of Attendance are:
Thaisa Guimaraes, Saleh Omar Saleh Hamid, Usanisa Thongchuea, Emma Waege.