By DON FLETCHER
News Staff Writer
Since the novel coronavirus COVID-19 either delayed or forced radical changes in graduation ceremonies at high schools across the state, a group of Atmore-area residents thought it would be fitting to honor area graduates in a unique way.
The recognition came May 2, in the form of a drive-by ceremony for 85 graduates of Escambia County High School, Escambia Academy, Northview High School and the county’s homeschool programs.
“It was amazing,” said ECHS grad Bykeidra Williams. “I felt very loved, like someone cared about us graduates. It was a great experience. It was sad to have everything taken from us — our graduation, our prom, all the things seniors usually get to do — by a virus.”
(ECHS officials have since announced that the school will hold a graduation ceremony next week — Thursday, May 21. See related article on page 1 of this edition of Atmore News.)
Atmore Fire Chief Ron Peebles, whose son Trent (a Northview grad) was one of the participants, said the celebration was something new to him.
“I thought it went pretty good,” he said. “It was kind of interesting.”
Kayla Lee, a graduate of EA, said she liked the chance the drive-by ceremony provided for her and her classmates to enjoy each other’s company before each went his or her separate way.
“It was good,” she said. “It’s really been a weird year, and I liked being with my friends again.”
The graduates — some in caps and gowns, others in casual or semi-formal dress — lined Fernway Drive in southwest Atmore, six feet apart. Dozens of local residents drove by, blowing their horns, waving and shouting encouragement to the high school students, and Atmore police kept the stream of vehicles moving along the residential street during the hour-long event.
“I was more than satisfied with the way it turned out; I was ecstatic,” said Atmore City Councilwoman Susan Smith, who organized the happening. “I don’t know if they were shell-shocked or what, but those were the most well-mannered kids. And the policemen did such a fantastic job of directing the traffic.”
The council member admitted that she came up with the idea but quickly pointed out that it wasn’t a one-person undertaking.
“Parents were telling me that their children’s graduations had been canceled, so I came up with the idea,” Smith said. “But I certainly didn’t do it by myself. I wound up with 25 volunteers by the time it started. The help just kept coming. Dr. William Earl Thomas and his wife, Harriet, came up from Gulf Shores to help out, and we had a bunch of local people. It was phenomenal. I’m still in awe of how well it went together.”
Smith acknowledged Dr. and Mrs. Thomas, along with Ross and Twana Parham, Pat Mason, Paulette Boben, Michele Tolbert, Courtney Ware, Jamie Ware, Ronnie Cloud, Nancy Rippstein, Darlene Peebles, Chandra McMurphy, Shimona Montgomery and “all my neighbors on Fernway Drive.”
The councilwoman said there was one aspect of the event that surprised her.
“I went around and asked them to tell me something that they wanted for graduation,” she recalled. “The majority of them talked about needs, not wants. Now, what 17-year-old or 18-year-old is thinking about things like that?”