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Ridgewood High triumphs


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 27, 2001

NEW PORT RICHEY -- Phillip Stitzer wheeled into Ridgewood High School two years ago.

He walked out Friday night with deliberate, much-practiced and much-dreamed-about steps, a diploma in hand.

Stitzer, who almost always uses a wheelchair because of spina bifida, walked across the Ridgewood gymnasium stage Friday, his arms hooked through metal crutches, his smile as bright as the flashbulbs going off around him.

"I've got to struggle a lot, so I don't smile much while I struggle," Stitzer said.

This night, his braces were on full display.

Stitzer, 19, was one of 351 students -- the boys clad in blue, the girls in white -- to graduate from Ridgewood High School.

It was a class that garnered several honors: two National Merit Scholar designations, four National Merit commended students, $656,000 in scholarships, and 26 grade-point averages of 4.0 or higher.

"Tomorrow is really about the beginning of whatever you set your mind to do," valedictorian Kelly Miller told them.

Aside from the good times, the class took time to reflect on one of its low points.

Many of the graduates wore yellow ribbons in rememberance of William Hulton, the assistant principal who served as administrator to the class of 2001 and died in October 1999 of a heart attack.

"I'm sure tonight he is looking down at us with pride and a smile," senior class president Joseph Anders said. "We will never forget him."

The students gave Hulton a standing round of applause.

They did the same for Stitzer, once as Principal Art O'Donnell praised him and again as he willed himself across the stage.

Stitzer, who will take a year of classes at Marchman Technical Education Center to become a Web designer, decided at the beginning of this year that he would walk in graduation. He had never walked more than a 50-foot stretch, he said.

The plan, which led in recent weeks to dreams of joy and nightmares of falling, almost didn't happen.

Last month doctors removed a hot dog-sized and shaped tumor at the top of his back. It was the 19th surgery the goateed graduate has suffered through.

It threatened to leave the arms that make walking possible as immovable as his legs.

"First I asked, "Am I going to be okay?' " Stitzer said. "The second question was, "Am I going to be able to walk in graduation?' "

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