PITTSFIELD — Student Barry Clifford would leave the Maine Central Institute campus during his free time in 1964-65 and walk the railroad tracks, turning over logs to see what was underneath and exploring vernal pools.

Later in life, that hobby would turn into his career as one of the most famous underwater explorers in the world.

Clifford, a 1965 alumnus of the school, returned to campus Sunday as commencement speaker for the Class of 2015, telling the 111 graduating seniors that they, too, can follow their dreams.

He urged that they pay attention, have confidence in their abilities and pursue what they love.

After his time at MCI, Clifford went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in history and sociology from Western State College in Colorado and received graduate training at Bridgewater State College.

In 1984, he discovered the ship Whydah, the first authentic pirate ship ever found in U.S. waters, off Cape Cod. The ship, lost in 1717, is the subject of the film “Pirates of the Whydah” and the focus of a traveling exhibit produced by National Geographic called “Real Pirates.” The ship yielded more than 100,000 artifacts including the ship’s bell, cannon, jewelry, gold and silver coins and weapons.

Introduced Sunday by MCI Headmaster Christopher Hopkins, Clifford told a packed Wright Gymnasium that on a beach in Madagascar, the blue and white shells people for years had thought were clam shells were actually porcelain from the Ming Dynasty and seven pirate ships were underwater just offshore, but for many years, no one knew it.

“The lesson is, why didn’t anyone see this before?” Clifford asked MCI seniors. “The clam shells weren’t clam shells, they were Ming porcelain. Unless your mind recognizes something, it doesn’t mean anything. So my advice is, open your eyes and have confidence going forward — have confidence in yourselves.”

Clifford is working to identify what he believes are the remains of Christopher Columbus’ ship, the Santa Maria, which he discovered off Haiti. He also discovered Adventure Galley off the coast of Madagascar in 1999 and 2000. The ship was the target of pirate Captain William Kidd in the 1600s.

As a child growing up in Brewster, on Cape Cod, Clifford would listen to stories his uncle told about pirate ships, he said. In 1982, Clifford left Martha’s Vineyard with John F. Kennedy Jr. and looked for a shipwreck, he said. In 1984, he said, Yankee magazine featured a story about Clifford that said it was not the best of times for him — a story that was embarrassing.

But later, after Clifford discovered the Whydah, the Boston Globe carried a story that said Clifford had made the discovery, which also was featured in a cover story in Parade magazine.

“The lesson is, never give up,” he said. “Have confidence in yourself. Don’t listen to the chatter about what you can and can not do.”

As a child, Clifford was told that he could not write — that he was dyslexic, he said. He later wrote several books and has appeared in many television and film documentaries.

“If you have a dream of being a writer and you have a good idea and you can’t spell, don’t let that stop you,” Clifford said.

While a student at MCI, Clifford wasn’t a great math student, he said, but he loved history and the lessons he learned at MCI stayed with him throughout his life.

“I often think of walking those railroad tracks,” he said.

He urged MCI seniors to pursue their passions.

“Believe in yourself, follow your dreams and never give up,” he said to applause from the crowd.

Clifford and his crew also discovered several shipwrecks in Boston Harbor in 1989, as well as artifacts associated with the Boston Tea Party and American Revolution.

Class Valedictorian Felicity Grace Audet gave a moving speech in which she said she came to MCI four years ago from Indiana where she had been home-schooled. Acclimating to the school was a struggle as most of the students in her class had grown up together and she was an introvert and an outsider.

But she did adjust and came to love MCI, where she had enrolled to focus on dance. Had she not taken that risk, she never would have had the opportunity to meet people from all over the world and develop friendships, nor would she have been able to develop her passion for science and history, she said.

While in Indiana there was not a sense of community, at MCI, community is a large part of daily life, she said.

“The support and encouragement we receive is phenomenal,” she said.

“I came here to dance, but now I leave here with a new appreciation for community that I never knew I had,” she said.

Speaking directly to the class, Audet said the path ahead is going to be challenging.

“But we must seize the moment, reach for the impossible and fight for our dreams,” she said.

Before marching into the gymnasium, senior Katherine Smith, 18, of Pittsfield, said she planned to attend Southern Maine Community College to major in criminal justice and minor in psychology. She said her goal is to be a forensic photographer. MCI classes, she said, helped prepare her well for SMCC as well as for Thomas College, where she hopes to enroll after she leaves SMCC. She praised her MCI drama teacher, Debra Susi, who helped instill a great sense of confidence in her, adding that her senior year seemed to fly by and before she knew it, graduation was here.

“It’s kind of exciting, and I am also really nervous at the same time because it came up so quickly,” she said.

Kenneth Basford, 18, of Burnham, said he planned to go to college to study metalworking and in the long term wants to be a goldsmith. He said that while he is not a real social person, he worked hard to take part in all the opportunities MCI offered.

“I’ve never, ever considered not doing this,” he said.

Justin Ward, 17, of New York City, plans to go to school to study design and wants to be a shoe designer and start his own business, he said. He is glad he attended MCI, he said.

“It was definitely a big change, coming from the inner city environment to such a small, rural area like Pittsfield. It was a very big adjustment. I really enjoy being here.”

He cited Jason Allen, history teacher and head track coach, for being a mentor and inspiring influence during his years at MCI.

“I’m just excited to take the next steps in my life,” Ward said.

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

Twitter: @AmyCalder17

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