Chris Gaunce, right, gives wife Linanne a hand ascending a 10-foot rock retaining wall that separates the Chevy sales lot from the Toyota sales lot Wednesday at Central Maine Motors Auto Group in Waterville. The pair are co-owners of the auto group. They plan to use the elevated vantage point to stage a drive-up graduation ceremony for 105 Waterville Senior High School seniors on June 11. The couple’s son is part of the graduating class. Spectators can view the ceremony from the lot and hear a broadcast of the ceremony through their car radios. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

WATERVILLE — There will be no hugs and handshakes at Waterville Senior High School’s graduation June 11, but thanks to some creative thinking and the generosity of one senior’s family, ceremonies for the 105 graduates will take place in person — and with safety measures in place.

The school’s commencement ceremonies usually are held in the Harold Alfond Athletic Center at Colby College, but the coronavirus pandemic is prohibiting that from happening this year.

High School Principal Brian Laramee has been soliciting input from students and parents about what they want for graduation, and he said the No. 1 theme he heard over and over was the desire for an in-person ceremony.

Meanwhile, Chris and Linanne Gaunce, the owners of Central Maine Motors Auto Group, whose son, Daniel, is a Waterville senior, proposed a solution — clearing their large dealership lot on Kennedy Memorial Drive of vehicles for the special day and holding graduation there.

Students and their immediate families may sit in their vehicles, spaced safely apart, and 10 students would be called at a time to step up to the stage and receive their diplomas during the ceremony, which will start at 7 p.m. The radio station, Mix Maine Media, will broadcast the ceremony so those in their vehicles may listen to what is being said, and the ceremony would be livestreamed on Facebook and other social media for others who may want to watch.

Chris Gaunce, right, and wife Linanne survey the Chevy sales lot from the Toyota sales lot atop a 10-foot retaining wall Wednesday at Central Maine Motors Auto Group in Waterville. The pair are co-owners of the auto group. They plan to use the elevated vantage point to stage a drive-up graduation ceremony for about 105 Waterville Senior High School students June 11. The couple’s son is part of the graduating class. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

Chris Gaunce said Wednesday that the idea to offer their property came to him and his wife as they considered how they might help. Linanne Gaunce was adamant that students must be able to walk across a stage before a crowd, he said.

“As we discussed it together on a walk one night — because we walk three miles a night — we got discussing what it is we wanted to do and it came to us that our GM lot is lower than the Toyota lot and the Toyota lot could be the stage,” he said. “The biggest thing for the whole event is the fact that we can keep people in their vehicles and let them applaud by honking horns and flashing lights.”

School Superintendent Eric Haley said the Gaunces’ idea is both creative and generous. Students will wear masks and follow social distance protocol, according to Haley.

“I think it’s the best we could possibly have hoped for,” Haley  said.

Joan Phillips-Sandy, chair of the Waterville Board of Education, said she is delighted and impressed, but not surprised by the generosity of the Gaunce family.

“They and Central Maine Motors have been strong supporters of community and school activities for as long as I can remember,” she said. “It is my understanding that details are still being worked out, and I look forward to a plan that will maximize safety while giving the graduates and their families a meaningful celebration.”

Laramee, the high school principal, sent out an email and robo call to staff, students and families Tuesday to update them on the general framework for graduation, which he said has been approved by both the Waterville Police Department and Waterville Board of Education.

“Thanks to the Gaunce family, our graduation ceremony will take place locally,” his email says. “They have graciously offered to clear the Chevy and Toyota parking lots and assist the school so that we can hold our ceremony at Central Maine Motors on June 11th. We are extremely appreciative of their generosity.”

Many details must be worked out and school officials continue to meet to discuss them, but Laramee said photographers provided by the school will take photos of graduates receiving their diplomas and the photos will be given to families free of charge. Students and families must stay in their vehicles during the ceremonies for health and safety reasons, he said.

“While I certainly understand the disappointment many seniors and families are experiencing during this time, it is my hope that the spirit and joy of your graduation will overshadow the disappointment of not being able to host a traditional ceremony.”

Chris Gaunce said Wednesday that it is important seniors be recognized, showcased and applauded for their accomplishments.

The virus, he said, will be here for all eternity, the normal way of doing things has changed, and people must find ways to deal with adversity. He said he thinks young people will take cues from the adults in that respect.

“I think it’s up to us to show them life’s always changing, and how you deal with adversity determines how happy or sad you will be, and how successful,” he said.

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