Opinion: Life isn’t scripted for Rio Blanco County’s recent graduates

With Meeker High School’s commencement Saturday, I attended my third graduation ceremony in four weeks.
First on the list of graduations was the one at Colorado Northwestern Community College, followed by Rangely Senior High.
I must say, there’s something about a graduation that tugs at the ol’ heart strings, especially for proud parents, grandparents, etc. First, there’s the recognition of what has been accomplished. There are the accolades for academic excellence as well as praise for participation in extra-curricular endeavors. But there’s also an acute awareness that, no matter what happens going forward, this moment will stand out as a major event in the life of every graduate.
That’s true for some more than others, of course. But generally speaking, I would venture to say most of us have pretty fond memories of our graduations from high school and/or college.
Having covered many of the activities involving Meeker’s and Rangely’s senior classes for the past two years, I felt particularly close to the members of these graduating classes. And, after having seen them in action countless times over that two-year period, I have to say: They didn’t disappoint. I have continually been impressed. Just listening as the list of dollar amounts for college scholarships awarded to members of the 2010 Meeker and Rangely classes was read off, I couldn’t help but be wowed.
So, for those of us who have had our doubts about the future, who think the world is going to hell in the proverbial hand basket, I must say, my faith in the next generation has been somewhat restored.
Witnessing the recent graduation ceremonies at CNCC, Rangely Senior High and Meeker High School, I couldn’t help but reflect on my own graduations, as well as the graduations of my two oldest children.
I graduated from high school in 1977, which must seem like ancient history to members of the 2010 classes. True, that was 33 years ago, which admittedly sounds like a long time ago.
Looking back, I had no clue what the future held, for me or my 600 and some classmates.
My best friend in high school recently told me that a member of our senior class — Dr. Larry Kwak — was ranked by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world for his cancer research.
Talk about making one feel inferior.
As one blogger wrote on my hometown newspaper’s website, “Congratulations to Larry, and to our many other LHS students that have done well in their fields of study, and their everyday commitments but not been so notably mentioned. I salute, and thank you all. What a long strange trip it’s been.”
In my case, the latter part of that statement is especially true.
I had no idea that one year after graduating from high school I would be married. Nor would I have ever guessed that I would end up pursuing a career in journalism that has now spanned 30 years. Little did I know I would be the father of four children. And not in my wildest dreams would I have imagined that my life would take such a free fall that I would lose my marriage, almost lose my career and end up a convicted felon.
But I’m sure Erin Pattee never imagined her story would end up on the big screen. I went to high school with Erin Brockovich — the real one, not Julia Roberts, who won a Best Actress Academy Award for her portrayal in the 2000 movie by the same name. Back in high school, Erin’s last name was Pattee.
In a different kind of notoriety, I also went to high school — she was actually my girlfriend for a brief time when I was a sophomore — with the woman who is married to Jeffrey Skilling, the former president of Enron, who is currently serving a 24-year prison sentence at the Federal Correctional Institution in Englewood for a whole slew of financial crimes.
The point is: Life can take us in dramatically different turns from what we would have ever scripted for ourselves.
Take another one of my high school classmates who, the day after our 10-year high school reunion, was killed in a freak parachuting accident. His chute never opened.
Often, the messages delivered at commencement ceremonies are filled with the usual trite platitudes heard at such momentous occasions. However, the speakers at this year’s commencement ceremonies I attended did a particularly nice job, I thought, of mixing in a healthy dose of reality, along with challenging students to dream big, to change the world — at least their own — and there’s no substitute for hard work.
As Johnny Arrington, the pastor of the United Methodist Church in Meeker, told the MHS seniors Saturday, “Deep within you is a story. I can’t wait to see how it unfolds.”
To the members of the 2010 CNCC, MHS and RSH graduating classes, we’ll be watching.
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Three candidates have successfully petitioned to have their names placed on the Aug. 10 primary ballot in Rio Blanco County. For county commissioner, the two candidates who petitioned were Shawn Bolton and Pat Hughes. Wendy Gutierrez was the only candidate to receive enough votes at the Republican Assembly and have her name automatically put on the ballot. In the county coroner race, Nancy Richardson petitioned to have her name added, joining Sherri Halandras and Dr. Albert Krueger, the top two vote-getters at the assembly.
“All three have filed their petitions with sufficient signatures — letters of sufficiency sent, so they are all on the upcoming primary ballot,” said Nancy Amick, county clerk.
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Meeker Elementary School’s Destination ImagiNation team returned Saturday from the Global Finals in Knoxville, Tenn.
“The kids had a great time,” said Dr. Kellie Turner, one of the team managers, along with Jackie Klinglesmith. “They ended up placing 16th out of 62 teams. Considering this was their first time to Globals (many teams have gone before) and they were competing against kids from around the world, I think they did great job. They are already planning their structure for next year with the goal of a weight held ratio of 29 and a return trip to Globals. When I asked them about their experience I got a lot of ‘Awesome,’ ‘Never imagined it or experienced anything like it,’ ‘Lots of fun.’ They met kids from across the country and around the world. They competed against teams from South Korea, China, Mexico, Canada, Turkey. Pin trading is a big thing at Globals. Teams design their own pins and when they get to Globals they trade them with kids from other teams. It’s a great way for the kids to meet others. Our kids came home with pins from numerous different states and countries. Our team was also given the honor of marching in the opening ceremony parade for Colorado. At Globals, they have an opening and closing ceremony in the Thompson-Boling Arena. It is packed with 12,000 participants and many other spectators. During these ceremonies there were fireworks, light shows, confetti from the ceiling, beach balls thrown from the stands, and screaming kids. Fairly impressive.”
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Last Thursday was the last day of classes at Meeker Elementary School … forever.
The 71-year-old building will be vacated as teachers and staff have already begun moving their things into a brand-spanking-new building, east of the Meeker Recreation Center.
The future of the old grade-school building, which reverted back to the town of Meeker as part of a lease agreement with the school district, is uncertain. Neighborhood residents of the school opposed the idea of the county using the centrally located lot of the school for a new justice center. So other options are being explored.
Whatever happens with the building and/or the site, there are strong sentimental ties to the school structure that has been in the heart of downtown Meeker for more than seven decades.
Here are some remembrances …
Mary Strang, president of the Meeker School Board: “It was a historic day for Meeker Elementary and one which marked the end of an era while a new one is on the horizon. In one sense, it is bittersweet, for downtown Meeker will no longer have the wonderful sounds of the elementary school playground in its midst — something enjoyed these past 71 years. But our kids and the elementary staff will be moving into a new showcase school building. … The taxpayers, who have made all this possible, will be proud of their new school for many years to come.
“Meeker Elementary was a W.P.A. project in 1938-39, which was temporarily closed down in the summer of 1939. The will to overcome challenges, however, saw the new building open for school on Oct. 16, 1939. For two years, elementary students had attended ‘school’ in many locations scattered around the community. Their old school, built in 1919, had been condemned in 1937 due to a broken water line, which undermined the school’s foundation. Actually, it was the second elementary school to be condemned. The first, built in 1883, was closed in 1917 due to unstable soils under its foundation.”
Jason Hightower, principal of Meeker Elementary School: “There are a lot of people in this town who have some big emotional attachments to it. I’ve only been here for nine years, so I’ve only been here for the last decade, but there is no denying the enormity of yesterday being the last day of school for this old facility. Children have been the lifeblood of this building for 70 years and its future is indeterminate for the first time in its existence. To me, that is extraordinary.
“One of the things that I first noticed about Meeker after we moved here was how much the community values its children. People turn out in droves to support their kids and that is not the case in many places. I’ve always admired the symbolism of the town’s elementary school being right in the heart of the community. I trust that just because the school isn’t right where everyone drives past it every day that the commitment to the children won’t change.
“I am very interested in paying homage to our past as educators of Meeker’s youngest. I am also, however, most concerned that we focus on these children who are our future. The new school is the most beautiful school that I’ve ever seen. We’ve been planning for this upcoming change for over two years now. The most exciting thing for me will be to have the students breathing life into that building.”
Becky Hughes, who was both a student and a teacher at MES: “I’m feeling very nostalgic. I’ve done a lot of learning in this building. I remember all of the teachers who taught me here as a student, and then I was lucky enough to have some of those teachers teach me again as I became a teacher. If these walls could talk they would have so many interesting stories to tell. It was a privilege to have spent so much of my learning career within the walls of this wonderful place.”
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Speaking of the new school, some of the parking lot has had to be redone.
“The problem with the parking lot and the reason for tearing up the preliminary layer of asphalt was some water had gotten underneath it. Additional feeder drain-lines — one running west to east in front of the classroom wing of the building and another running south to north in front of the cafeteria/media center — were necessary to solve this problem. They will join an existing, large 18-inch drain at the main entrance to the building. The 18-inch line carries the water away from the building,” said Mary Strang, school board president, adding the redo work was done “at no cost to the taxpayer; it’s a warranty issue.”
There have also been challenges with sewer line for the new school.
“The sewer hasn’t passed inspection at this point and time,” said Gail Frantz of the Meeker Sanitation District. “It’s had at least two, possibly three (inspections) … parts of it have been redone. It’s basically up to them what they want to do … if they build it up to our standards, our board would review and look at possibly accepting it.”
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An estimated 200 people attended the rebirth of Meeker’s Afterbirth Ball a couple of weekends ago, and the positive reviews continue to come in.
“I think it went really well,” said Ellene Meece, the chamber’s membership director. “I got lots of accolades and thanks. Everyone had a lot of fun.
“My favorite thing was that it was people of all ages from Arturo Rodgriguez’s little 18-month-old to Joe Sullivan and Ethel Starbuck in their 90s — out there dancing. The young people got into it too and that was gratifying. I had one lady from Iowa that comes to Meeker this time every year for 10 days beg me to have it again at this same time next year, so they could participate again. She was friends with Sparky and Rocky Pappas.
“And I had Phyllis Lake call me and she said they couldn’t come because they were pulling a calf. But she wanted to let me know all the good things she had heard about it and she was on her way down to join the chamber as a community supporter. Love it.”
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Pulling a calf during the Afterbirth Ball. How fitting is that?

Jeff Burkhead is editor of the Herald Times. You may e-mail him at jeff@theheraldtimes.com.