AUGUSTA — A Marine who has traveled the world, after graduating from Gardiner Area High School 27 years ago, told this year’s crop of graduates all the traits they need to go far in life can be found in abundance in Maine.

Marine Col. Damien Marsh told the 2014 graduating class of Gardiner Area High School those traits, including a strong work ethic, ruggedness and natural leadership, will serve them well, but only if they take advantage of them.

“I can’t tell you how proud I am to come from a small town like Gardiner and how the lessons learned here have served me well,” said Marsh, who led a squadron of Marines who were among the first to bring help to Japanese people struck by a massive earthquake and tsunami in 2011, when they were credited with saving many lives. “The keys to life are here. You’re going to have a great ride. We’re all sons and daughters of Maine, which makes all of us the few and the proud. You are truly going to go places. Your success is only limited by your drive. America is one of the few countries in the world where there is nothing to hold you back, except yourself.”

He noted most members of the class of 2014 were in their first week of kindergarten when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center in New York.

“For our graduates, I suspect this is the only nation they know. They only know a nation at war,” Marsh said.

The 1987 Gardiner graduate, who received a standing ovation from the Augusta Civic Center crowd, urged graduates to travel the world and, when they do, to immerse themselves in the culture of wherever they go. He said while traveling, if they only learn how to say one thing in the local language, “learn to say thank you. It will serve you well.”

Before the ceremony, students posed for photographs with friends, family and fellow graduates.

Graduates marched in under an archway made of orange and black balloons — Gardiner Tiger colors.

Salutatorian Kristin Cosgrove warned her classmates against losing their inner child.

“As we stand on the brink of adulthood and discover our purpose in this world, we must hold on to our youthful curiosity and run with it,” said Cosgrove, who plans to attend the University of Maine. “Whether we’re entering the workforce, becoming teachers or studying business we can’t forget to dance ridiculously in the car at red lights and embrace the simple pleasure of walking barefoot in the grass. It’s so easy to lose passion and make life a routine. Go make mistakes and embrace failures, because this is when we truly learn who we are. This is when we find our destiny and true happiness, and isn’t that what life is all about?”

Valedictorian Matthew Clark, who plans to attend Emory University, likened the diversity of people to the diversity of musical styles. He said he didn’t always feel as though he fit in with the social norms at his school. While he saw a sea of students in work boots and Carhartt jackets, he was wearing boat shoes and a J-Crew button-down shirt.

“For a long time I questioned if I was wrong, or if many of the people around me were,” Clark said. “As I matured, though, I realized that we need diversity among people and their interests in order for everyone to be happy. Like with music, I realized that every type of person and his or her interests, just like with different musical sounds and genres, brings a message across and nurtures the mind and spirit of all people. I’ll miss everyone here and all the different music we made as a class, and I encourage each and every one of you to make your own music, embrace it, and encourage everyone else in this world to do the same”

A large screen above the stage showed pictures of graduates when they were young children, while graduation attendees, many toting bouquets of flowers, took their seats before the school band played “Pomp and Circumstance” and graduates marched in.

A banner hung on the wall said: “We have Survived! Class of 2014.”

Packs of Smarties candy awaited all the graduates in their seats on the auditorium floor.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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