Community celebrates resilient Herbert Hoover class with graduation ceremony

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Herbert Hoover High School Principal Mike Kelley was emotional Tuesday morning at Laidley Field.

On the four year anniversary of the flooding that devastated the Elk River communities and destroyed the high school, the Class of 2020 was celebrated with an in-person commencement.

Kelley said the students stayed strong, stayed together and stood up for Hoover in its darkest hour.

“What you have been to this school and the community over the last four years is remarkable. You’ve demonstrated such character strength and compassion for each other. I am proud of you and I am thankful for you,” he said.

Kelley also shared the same praise for parents, school staff and the community, as a few hundred of them socially distance in the entire south side of the bleachers.

Mike Kelley

The ceremony, which was the first of eight Kanawha County high school ceremonies to occur at Laidley Field, saw around 180 students receive diplomas.

Alexa Starr Hawkins, one of the heads of the class, was a class speaker on Tuesday. She told the story about how rough her class had it after the flood, starting with freshman year being a half-day in the middle school.

The high school her class was set to step foot in that fall saw several feet of water in the flooding. The school system eventually tore the facility down and a new high school has yet to be open.

Following Hawkins’ freshman year, Herbert Hoover High School (HHHS) conducted classes in portable trailer classrooms next to the middle school. The class remained in the portables for junior and senior years.

“There is much to be celebrated because so many of us have not given up believing in our dreams,” she said. “There are so many of us pushing for a better tomorrow and there are so many people around us who never have and never will stop believing in us.”

HHHS Vice-Principal Jason Cantrell noted to the crowd that the flooding was only one of the many obstacles for this class to overcome. The school year was cut short due to COVID-19, forcing seniors to miss prom, senior awards, sports, and take all online classes.

“The tragic events of September 11, 2001, and the changed world that resulted from it, wars in which some of their parents were deployed for long lengths of time, historic natural disasters, a great recession, the water crisis, and the terrible floods that ravaged the community,” Cantrell said of the events.

Cantrell, one of a few school leaders to speak, said he couldn’t be more proud of a group of students than this one because of those obstacles.

“They adapted to every change that they were forced to make, changes they were forced to make through no fault of their own,” he said.

“They leaned on one another. They found strength in their teachers, parents and others in the community.”

The ceremony included student Harley Steven Coutz performing the national anthem, remarks from vice-principal Chandra Dalton, a taped performance by the HHHS Band Ensemble, remarks from senior class president Brandon Kane Szucs, and a senior slide show.

HHHS was the first of eight Kanawha County high schools to hold an outdoor graduation ceremony with Capital High School on Tuesday evening.

On June 5, the school system said there would be no in-person graduation ceremonies because of concerns expressed by the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department. Kanawha County Schools had the ceremonies scheduled for inside the Charleston Coliseum and Convention Center.

The crowd was spread out in the bleachers.

On June 10, just a few days after that announcement and the day the state Department of Education announced that in-person graduation ceremonies will be permitted beginning June 22, the school district announced it would allow in-person graduation ceremonies outdoors.

The guidelines put into place by the school system include encouraging attendees to wear masks, observe proper social distancing at all times, utilizing the entire south side of the bleachers, encouraging only immediate family members to attend, and encouraging no gathering on Laidley Field property before or after ceremonies.

George Washington High School’s graduation will be Wednesday at 10 a.m., St. Albans 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Sissonville 10 a.m. on Thursday, Riverside 7 p.m. on Thursday, Nitro 10 a.m. on Friday, and South Charleston 7 p.m. on Friday.

These events will continue unless there are extreme weather conditions including lightning, high winds or a tornado warning. Saturday, June 27, will be the make-up date in the case of extreme weather.

All graduations are being broadcasted live on WCHS-TV in Charleston.