AUGUSTA — Gardiner Area High School students, including one who left school in 1967 for the Vietnam War, got their diplomas Saturday to a chorus of honking horns and applause in a drive-up graduation ceremony.

Vietnam War veteran Donald Andrews didn’t finish his final year at Gardiner Area High School in 1967, opting instead to join the Navy. Now, 53 years later, he graduates with the Class of 2020 during Saturday’s ceremony in the Augusta Civic Center parking lot. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Graduates waited with their friends and families in and around their cars in the parking lot of the Augusta Civic Center until it was their turn to take the stage to get their diplomas. The ceremony was altered because officials decided a traditional graduation ceremony could not be done due to restrictions meant to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. For many of the students, it was the first time to see their classmates since in-classroom instruction ended abruptly in March.

“It was definitely weird, but it was worth it,” graduate Michaela Gardner said after getting her diploma, as her mom, dad and brother looked on. She said her grandparents didn’t come to the ceremony because they were concerned about the potential for exposure. “That’s kind of sad because I wanted to spend this time with my family.”

Graduates, after picking up their diplomas, received rounds of applause and honking car horns in the parking lot ceremony. None were louder than they were for Donald Andrews, originally a member of Gardiner’s Class of 1967.

Andrews received his diplomas 53 years after he left high school in March of his senior year — before he had graduated —to join the Navy and serve two tours of duty in the Vietnam War.

“I thought it was my responsibility to join the Navy, for Vietnam,” Andrews said before the ceremony. He would have gotten his diploma that June, but, instead, didn’t get it until Saturday. He called the high school this year to see what he would have to do to get his diploma. Officials said he could get his diploma this year because he had been so close to graduating.

He served with the SeaBees, building roads and unloading tanks and other equipment from ships to deliver them to U.S. forces, and hauling ammunition and weapons across the country in a tractor-trailer. After the war, he returned home and drove a truck for 40 years, raising a family of three kids.

Principal Chad Kempton said Andrews getting his diploma was long overdue.

Kempton, the only speaker at the graduation, spoke in reference to a quote on the graduation program attributed to John A. Shedd: “A ship in harbor is safe — but that is not what ships are built for.”

“My message to you is to get out and see the world,” Kempton said. “Be confident in yourself, but not too confident. Your limits are only those that you set upon yourself. Know that Gardiner Area High School will always be a safe harbor to drop anchor and rest for a while if you need it. Do your best to make the world a better place .”

Graduate Kyle Capozzi of Randolph said it was tough for he and other students to keep their motivation up during the pandemic.

“I think we’re breeding a tougher generation,” he said of the pandemic’s impact. “It has been a journey and a learning experience not many will have.”

Kempton shook hands or hugged many of the graduates when they got their diplomas, using hand sanitizer between students.

One hug was longer than most others — with his daughter, Nadia Kempton.

Becky Fles, school board chairwoman, helped pass out diplomas and also had a graduate this year, her son Jacob Fles.

Charlotte Calmes waves to friends Saturday before the start of the Gardiner Area High School graduation ceremony in the parking lot of the Augusta Civic Center. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Graduate Charlotte Calmes’ family decorated their van with written congratulations. She said she kind of liked the unusual graduation ceremony.

“It’s special, no one else gets to do it like this,” she said.

The proceedings were broadcast over the radio using a frequency on loan from Central Church for the event, Kempton said, and also streamed to the internet by Munzing Media which, Kempton said, allowed family, friends, alumni and others to watch the graduation if they couldn’t attend in person.

Each graduate had a poster with their name and photograph on it, marking their assigned parking spot for the ceremony.

Before and during the ceremony, graduates, very few of whom wore masks, caught up with classmates in the parking lot. For some, it was the first time seeing each other since schools closed.

 

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