Class of ’21 goes out on a high note

36 seniors graduating with a more normal Ely commencement

by Tom Coombe
Their final 15 months as high school students were like no other graduating class in the storied century-plus existence of Ely Memorial High School.
Yet their last act will be strikingly, if not refreshingly, “normal.”
That’s the backstory as the graduating class of 2021 gathers Saturday night for their commencement ceremonies.
They won’t walk across the stage at Washington Auditorium, which is unavailable because of the ongoing school construction and renovation project, but the group will instead gather at the baseball stadium - Veterans Memorial Field - for a ceremony slated to begin at 7 p.m.
Graduation is outdoors for a second consecutive year in Ely, but while the class of 2020 had to take part in a drive-in graduation in the arena parking lot, this year’s event is much more traditional in nature - save for a new venue.
“The kids are excited to be able to be together in person, where they’ll be able to look at each other and not have masks on and see each other smile while they get their diplomas,” said high school principal Megan Anderson.
School officials toyed with a baseball field graduation last year, but that was nixed by state regulations that limited graduation events to drive-up only.
Members of the Class of 2020 rode in vehicles with family members, stepped out to pick up their diploma and pose for a photo as part of a procession through the arena parking lot.
This year’s event more follows previous tradition, with a formal presentation of diplomas and speeches from both senior class member McKenna Coughlin and high school band director Sarah Mason, who will give the commencement address.
The event takes place with COVID-19 restrictions ending across the state, and a high school experience - for the Class of 2021 - that at times bordered on the bizarre.
The group missed the final two-and-a-half months of their junior year, with the pandemic forcing all Minnesota students into distance learning and cancelling all school activities.
This year has included a mix of distance, hybrid and in-person learning, including stretches when athletics and activities were put on hold and some cancelled altogether. When attending school, students were placed into cohorts, masks were required indoors and social distancing measures were in place.
“It’s been a ride for these kids,” said Anderson. “You talk about the changes they’ve had. There was a lot of sympathy toward the Class of 2020 but they had just those last couple months that were disrupted. This group of kids had everything. Whether it was not knowing if we were going to have fall sports, to the play and musical and things like that which were off the agenda for the year. Yet they’ve kept their heads up and made the best out of a tough situation this year.”
Anderson also harkened back to nearly a decade ago, when she taught many members of the class as third graders.
“You look back at those kids as nervous and insecure as a third grader can be and now we have these confident young men and women.
While small in number, the Class of 2021 isn’t short on achievement, with members excelling not only in the classroom, but in fine arts and athletics and in the community.
More than a third of the class - some 13 members in all - have the acclaim of being an honor student. That distinction requires a grade point average of 3.5 or above.
They are Coughlin, Will Davies, Grace Erickson, Jorden Herrly, Jasper Johnston, Brock LaTourell, Desiray Lawrence, Amelia Pluth, Sydni Richards, Jonah Schwamm, Julia Schwinghamer and Abigail Thompson.
The honor students were part of a group that collected over $180,000 in scholarships earlier this month at the school’s awards day. More than 90 awards were distributed during a ceremony that was held virtually this year because of the pandemic, but with seniors and their parents watching a special screening at Ely’s Historic State Theater.
One remnant of last year’s graduation will remain - the parade through town after the ceremony.
An impromptu event last year, it proved to be popular with community members lining the streets to salute the graduates.
“My response last year was that we should do the graduation parade every single year and the kids are excited to have that happen,” said Anderson.
The route goes from Seventh Avenue East, down Harvey Street to Highway 1, north to Sheridan Street and then down Ely’s main drag to Third Avenue East, and winding up back at the school.