James River High School (from left) SCA President Emily Bryan, Salutatorian Sydney Gordon and Valedictorian Benjamin Johnson wait on stage for their classmates to get seated during last week’s commencement in the school gym. Photo by Ed McCoy

Weather pushed the 2017 James River High School commencement inside on the evening of May 23, but the rain that was swelling the school’s namesake failed to dampen the enthusiasm for the 120 seniors, their families and friends.

Benjamin Johnson was the Class of 2017 valedictorian and Sydney Gordon was salutatorian. Gordon was also recognized for earning the school’s first associate degree, an A.S. in Health Sciences Specialization. Gordon was also Class President.

SCA President Emily Ann Bryan told her classmates she was proud of what they’d done at JRHS.

“James River is something special,” she said. She asked her classmates when challenged to “stay true to what you learned here…. We have overcome…. We have united…. We have become a force as the Class of 2017.”

In his valedictory address, Johnson said, “Up to now, all we’ve thought about is the end, and now we have to think about the beginning.”

Johnson challenged the class, “Don’t focus on the end game…. Smell the roses. Scare yourself, surprise yourself,” he said. “Do something out of the ordinary on purpose.”

Gordon’s salutatorian address focused on what the students love about JRHS and what the class will miss. Her list included Friday night football, Petros and a notation that “we wear camo better than anyone else in the county.”

Principal Jamie Talbott noted that 29 seniors graduated with a 4.0 or higher grade point average while having those students stand.

Superintendent of Schools John Busher didn’t let a microphone malfunction slow him down as he addressed the JRHS Class of 2017 with a message for them and a message for the graduates’ parents. While the microphone was being tended to, Busher stepped to the front of the stage and continued his remarks to the full house in the school gym.

He said the class received an announced $563,441 in total scholarship dollars.

One member of the class, Olivia Simmons, was recognized for 13 years of perfect attendance.

Talbott also paid tribute to two persons who were lost during the school year. He said Kathy Graham Sullivan, a School Board member and longtime advocate for JRHS, was instrumental in making the school renovation a reality in 2007. She passed away last November.

The Class of 2017 also lost a classmate in an automobile accident last fall. Talbott said Trystan Lowdermilk had outstanding character, was a positive role model and teammate. He had intentions of attending Virginia Tech.

“I’m most proud of you for how you responded to the loss of one of your classmates this year,” Talbott told the class. “I will never forget how you shared your love with Trystan’s family.

He read a letter to the class from Trystan’s parents, Brian and Michelle Lowdermilk.

School Superintendent John Busher told the class he was jealous that he is not a “River Rat.”

“There’s a unique characteristic of James River High School, its students and staff,” he said, then asked all the JRHS alumni in attendance to stand.

Busher then spoke to the parents, telling them, “You’re not done, you better not be.”

He asked them to keep tabs on their graduates, to stay in touch with them.

Donta Wright was all smiles as he waited for his name to be called to receive his JRHS diploma.

To the seniors, he said, “The responsibility of taking care of you is you. Don’t mess it up.”

He recognized the lone senior headed into the military and thanked him. “What you’re about to do for your country and your community is an amazing thing,” Busher said.

Busher then recognized the seniors who were headed to work after graduation and the ones who were graduating with “credentials” for the job or career they were entering.

He recognized those going to two- and four-year programs, and then asked, “This is me. Who doesn’t have a clue?” which drew several hands.

Busher said school is not taking a test, technology, etc. “It’s teachers,” he told the crowd and recognized the school’s educators and the four who are retiring this year.

— Ed McCoy