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214 Zephyrhills seniors share laughs and tears

By BRADY DENNIS

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 27, 2001


ZEPHYRHILLS -- Charles Carroccetto, diploma in hand, ripped open his black gown to reveal a Superman T-shirt underneath.

Carroccetto was not alone. The 214 graduates of Zephyrhills High School spent Friday night feeling invincible.

They did the wave. They bumped chests. They high-fived. They bounced beach balls through the salt-and-pepper crowd -- girls in white robes, boys in black.

They hugged. They laughed. They cried.

Behind the graduates, a standing room only crowd packed the gymnasium. Proud parents blew party horns. They rang cow bells. They waved glow sticks. And they provided a steady stream of flashbulbs.

On stage, the talk focused on things to come.

"Graduation is very much a crossroads in our lives," said valedictorian Mamie Wise, voted Pasco County's Most Outstanding Student of the Year. "Today is our chance to do the impossible and live our dreams. Pursue those things that truly feed your soul."

Salutatorian Carolyn Young echoed the advice.

"Don't be afraid to try for something that seems impossible," she said. "Many things are possible if we are willing to try them, and they all begin with dreams."

Although much of the night was spent pondering the future, some graduates couldn't help reflecting on the past.

With a tear running down her cheek, Gertrude Huffman, 18, walked across the stage clutching a framed photo of her father, who died in a 1992 car crash.

"It was a graduation present from my sister; that way he could be here," Huffman said through tears. "He would be very proud."

Dana Guest might have appreciated the occasion more than anyone. She almost wasn't alive to see it.

Guest was paralyzed when a rock truck plowed into her last June 17 on Bruce B. Downs Boulevard. She spent three months in the hospital and missed the first month of her senior year.

But she said she was determined to graduate, and she did -- with honors.

"This is one of the happiest days of my life," said Guest, who received a roaring ovation as she guided her wheelchair across the stage. "I'm just glad I am here to experience it. I probably wouldn't be if not for this school and this community."

The ceremony didn't lack tear-jerking moments. Andrea Counsell kept the crowd in rapt silence while she strummed her acoustic guitar and sang You Mean Everything To Me.

And as the evening wound to a close, the graduates watched a video montage on a massive screen that was lowered over the podium.

They laughed, cried and howled as pictures of proms, football games, days on the beach and other high school moments flashed across the screen.

The video's background song rang true: "As we go on, we remember all the times we had together. As our lives change, come whatever, we will still be friends forever."

Principal Jim Davis watched with a contented grin. He said 2001 was a class he wouldn't soon forget.

"We are like a family here. We are still a community high school. We have a community that supports us," Davis said. "I have always been fond of this class. They are very strong, very unique."

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