NFA honors 2 who didn't get to graduate Thursday

Norwich — The Norwich Free Academy graduation ceremony is steeped in tradition, even including the singing of the “Hymn Dundee” sung at the academy's first dedication in 1856.

NFA started a new graduation tradition Thursday that officials hope never to need again. Class of 2017 members Grace E. Hanlon and Edison J. Medina died within the past year, Hanlon in a car crash in Rhode Island last summer and Medina of cancer during the school year. They were honored with a moment of silence at the request of Head of School David Klein.

Their names were listed in the graduation program with the heading “In Memory of Fellow Classmates.” Their families received diploma folders and yearbooks dedicated to them, said NFA Diversity Director Leo Butler. The tributes were approved by the families ahead of time, Butler said.

Graduates Sabrina Honvo of Norwich and Emily James of Preston, close friends since first grade, found each other immediately after marching off the field. They held each other in a long, heartfelt embrace and vowed to stay in touch as James heads to Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire and Honvo to Wheaton College in Massachusetts.

Both knew Hanlon. Her loss, Honvo said, “was a tough one.”

An atmosphere of celebration dominated the bright sunny afternoon for the 544 graduates and hundreds of family members, friends and supporters clutching balloons, blowing horns and ringing bells for their special graduates.

Kohl Chappelle of Norwich had a different idea for his niece, Daigeonna Costley. He ordered a large banner with a photo of 3-year-old Daigeonna. “Congratulations Daigeonna! We Love You. We're so Proud of You.”

“She saw it,” her mother, Monique Perry of Norwich, said after Costley walked past carrying her diploma.

The two Class of 2017 speakers told of their different paths to Thursday's ceremony. Class Speaker Riana M. Luca spent only her senior year at NFA. She introduced herself to her fellow graduates and said that while she couldn't reminisce with them about their first days on campus, she shared a senior year she described as “like an adventure quest in an enchanted land.”

Ivy Orator Vincent Huang told of a child born into poverty in New York City to immigrant parents bent on working long, hard hours to ensure their son could focus on his education. That son is headed to Boston University “to make his parents proud,” he said.

“I am this child, and his parents are my parents,” Huang said. “They are out there somewhere watching me at this moment."

Each year, NFA invites the class of 50 years earlier to celebrate its 50th reunion and march onto the athletic field with the new graduates and to select a representative to address the Class of 2017.

David Sumner, member of the Class of 1967, felt a special connection to the tradition and to the graduates on the field. His mother, an NFA Class of 1941 graduate, was among the first 50th reunion participants that launched the tradition in 1991.

Sumner recounted that in order for him to attend NFA, his family had to move back to Norwich, because his town had just opened its own high school and would no longer send students to NFA. He told graduates to remember the sacrifices made by their parents, grandparents, siblings, teachers, coaches and staff at all the schools they have attended to get them to Thursday's celebration.

“By remembering them, by following their example, you allow them to live on in your minds and your hearts,” Sumner said.

c.bessette@theday.com



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