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Out of the blue, dilemma over graduations solved

Simultaneous ceremonies call for creativity and a quick lift.

Published May 16, 2007

[Times photo: Scott Keeler]
Brenda Nielsen (center) will attend her daughter's graduation at Bright House Networks Field in Clearwater, then fly in a helicopter to St. Petersburg to attend her son's graduation at Tropicana Field on Monday. Clearwater High School principal Keith Mastorides, helped arrange the helicopter ride for Nielsen.

Two kids. Two graduations. Two locations.

It all added up to one difficult decision for Brenda Nielsen, a widow with a daughter graduating Monday at 7:30 p.m. from Clearwater High and a son graduating the same day, same time from Palm Harbor University High.

One ceremony will be in Clearwater, the other in St. Petersburg.

"Which one do you watch graduate?" she asked. "It's not an easy choice."

Nielsen, 49, was working on a plan to have one of the ceremonies videotaped when Clearwater High principal Keith Mastorides intervened.

"Are you scared of heights?" he asked.

"Yes," she said. Terrified in fact.

Oh well.

It's all been arranged: Nielsen will take a helicopter from her daughter's graduation at Bright House Networks Field in Clearwater to Albert Whitted Municipal Airport in St. Petersburg. There, a car will whisk her to see her son's graduation at Tropicana Field.

To buy time, Clearwater High arranged to have Rebecca Lee Nielsen, 18, receive her diploma first and Palm Harbor High will see to it that Mark Lloyd Nielsen II, 17, receives his diploma last.

Mastorides secured the necessary takeoff and landing approvals from officials in both cities.

When he told her this, Nielsen cried.

She said she will overcome her fear of heights for her kids.

"I was in shock," she said this week. "Overwhelmed. Because it's hard nowadays to find people to go out of their way to make things go right, especially when they've got a lot on their plate.

"So right now," she said of Clearwater High's first-year principal, "he's my hero."

This time last year, Brenda Nielsen could see the scheduling conflict coming.

Six Pinellas high schools held graduation ceremonies at identical or similar times on the same Wednesday night in May, all at different locations. Clearwater and Palm Harbor were among them.

Last summer Nielsen began lobbying the district to avoid scheduling the two graduations at the same time.

While officials were sympathetic, she said, they told her scheduling graduations was a difficult process that transcended the concerns of any one family.

She said one official suggested that she and her husband each go to one graduation. "Which would be nice," said Nielsen, whose husband, Mark Lloyd Nielsen, died in March 2002 after an unexplained coma. He was 47.

Though the family lives in Clearwater, Nielsen's son entered Palm Harbor's medical magnet program four years ago, wanting to follow in the footsteps of his father, who worked as a nurse.

Rebecca, who wants to be a teacher, opted for Clearwater High, where her mother graduated in 1976.

Brenda Nielsen's fears became real when the district announced graduation schedules early this year. Her children begged her not to make a stink, she said. "They just didn't want mom to upset the apple cart."

But mom made one more try about six weeks ago. She approached Mastorides, also a Clearwater alum, at Rebecca's awards ceremony for the school dance team.

"I told him, 'How can they do that to people? How can you get it changed?'"

He asked her to send him her concerns in an e-mail. Weeks passed. "I figured he wasn't able to work anything out, " Nielsen said.

Then he called Friday.

Mastorides had contacted Buzz Heuchan, an old family friend with an aerial photography business at Clearwater Airpark. Heuchan pointed him to Frank Marsalek, co-owner of Vertical Flight, another airpark business offering flight tours and aviation training.

Marsalek, 65, agreed to provide the flight at no cost. He said he would normally charge about $300.

"Everybody needs some help once in awhile," he said.

With the city's approval, Marsalek will pick up Nielsen on a baseball outfield next to Bright House Networks Field. The 13-mile trip should take six to eight minutes, he said.

Another airpark pilot helped out with similar arrangements in 2000 when a single mother could not make it to simultaneous graduations for Palm Harbor University High and Countryside High for her twin daughters.

Rebecca and Lloyd Nielsen plan to attend St. Petersburg College next year, but their high school graduations will be a time to look back and reflect on a hard-won milestone.

"It took me a long time to get them through," said Brenda Nielsen, whose helicopter trip will be a one-way affair.

Her mother will drive her back to Clearwater, she said.

"One time scared to death is enough for me."

[Last modified May 15, 2007, 23:04:19]

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