MADISON — As his peers milled about around him in the entrance to Madison Area Memorial High School, Benny Peck fought back tears. Like his friends around him, Peck was graduating after his four years at the high school, but the 18-year-old fondly recalled his adopted home.

Peck moved to Madison from Connecticut when he was in second grade, and it was a bit of a shock, he said. All he knew at the time was big schools. He was fully expecting to graduate with a class of 500 or 600. Instead, he graduated with a class of 44.

“It was weird being at small schools,” Peck said.

But Peck said being at small schools, and getting to know his classmates, was a meaningful experience. As his friends consoled him, Peck said he was thankful to have gotten to know his classmates and to have shared experiences with them.

“It’s family,” said the emotional Peck, who will be going on a two-year mission for his church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Peck was one of 44 graduating seniors from Madison on Friday who received their diplomas in a crowded gymnasium. Those graduating reflected a wide range going forward. Some were going on to join the workforce. Others were attending local colleges, such as Kennebec Valley Community College or Thomas College. A handful will be attending the University of Southern Maine and the University of Maine. One student was going so far away as the South Central Louisiana Technical College.

In front of the crowded gymnasium, the class valedictorian, Ravin Davis, choked back tears as spoke of how the graduation was both a hello and goodbye.

“They’re happy tears, I promise,” she said.

Davis said on Friday night, they were saying goodbye to the past; goodbye to the first baby steps, to the students they were in every step of their educations. But they were also saying hello to the future, to the people who will “spiral into endless change.”

“Tonight is about embarking on an unknown but incredibly bright path,” Davis said.

Jessica Ward, the high school’s principal, complimented the students on their accomplishments during their time at the school. She then introduced the commencement speaker, Bob Crowley, the Maine resident who won the show “Survivor: Gabon” in 2008. Crowley, who taught at Gorham High School before appearing on the show, addressed graduates and audience, saying he had come with advice for the students but would just tell stories instead. Crowley spoke of his experience on the TV show and said he thinks he won because he was honest and kind. He said his father always had taught him while growing up not to lie about anything, but he joked that his father told him before he went on the show that “bluffing in poker is not lying; play for all the marbles in the pot.”

“I do have a great deal of pride in the fact I didn’t win in a traditional manner,” he said. “I never went back on any promises I made to anyone. I was humble and kind.”

Crowley also said the fact he was from Maine played a role in his winning the show. He had wanted to bring a Maine state flag as his personal item to fly in Gabon, but wasn’t able to do so. He said he went on the show and acted as the person his mother and father had raised: an honest man and a hard worker. His speech brought laughter and applause from the crowd multiple times, and ultimately he did give the graduating seniors a little advice: to remember where they came from.

“People have given you good advice. Please take it,” Crowley said. “Remember your families. Remember your friends. Go out in the world and make us proud that you are from Maine and from Madison.”

Nick Morales, 17, also spent his entire high school career at Madison. He said the community meant a lot to him. When Morales was in the eighth grade, his family lost its home in a fire. He said he’s lived in Madison his entire life and remembered his time at the school and in town fondly.

“Overall, Madison’s been good to me,” Morales said.

Morales, who earned high honors at Madison, will be attending the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the fall, where he plans to study kinesiology. Ultimately, he said, he’d like to pursue a doctorate degree in physical therapy.

Colin Ellis — 861-9253

[email protected]

Twitter: @colinoellis

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