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Eight students graduate in closed ceremony

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    Graduate Phillip Balzer and his family sing “Be Thou My Vision” at Saturday night’s commencement.

That Freeman Academy had to scramble on Saturday to adjust its plans for this year’s graduation and move it from outside to inside Pioneer Hall is only fitting in these unusual and uncertain times; after all, the coronavirus pandemic has everybody making it up as they go.

While this year’s commencement at the 117-year-old private school rooted in Christian education took place in an unexpected way on a number of levels, eight students did earn their high school diplomas in a ceremony that acknowledged both these strange times, the accomplishments of the students and lessons to carry with them into the next chapter of their lives.

“When you and I began this year, we had no idea how the culmination of our years at FA would end,” said Gwen Ortman, a retiring English teacher who gave the commencement address. “I’m doing OK, but I’m so sad for all the events you have missed this spring. I hope and pray that some of your celebrations can still happen this summer and that the coming school year will be more normal for you.”

Click here for photos from Freeman Academy's 2020 commencement.

This year’s graduation, of course, was anything but normal. Commencement was open only to immediate family members, and instead of sitting together on the Pioneer Hall stage as is typical, graduates were seated with their families in clusters on the bleachers. Most people wore masks. The lectern was wiped down with disinfectant after each person used it. And the students were awarded their National Honor Society cord and diploma, not by the chair of the Freeman Academy Board, but by their parents who accompanied them to the stage when their name was called.

The public could listen to the closed ceremony, and many did from their vehicles parked outside of Pioneer Hall.

Other elements of this year’s graduation included a prelude and postlude on the keyboard by Amy Hofer Vetch, a confirmation from Head of School Nathan Epp that the eight seniors had met the requirements for graduation set forth by Freeman Academy and the state of South Dakota, words of welcome and an opening prayer by Thomas Pietzrak-Schroeder, the hymn “Be Thou My Vision,” the presentation of the senior gift by Beau Miller, music by Josie Epp and Phillip Balzer, a senior slideshow prepared by Deborah Andzejek, and closing remarks and a prayer by Jaden Rouse. Two other noteworthy elements:

1. The north side of the thrust that extends the Pioneer Hall stage further out into the auditorium that had been built for the Schmeckfest musical was still there, and one of the “Matilda the Musical” set pieces designed by Michelle Hofer remained in place. The musical, of course, was canceled for 2020 along with Schmeckfest.

2. Words from Winston Churchill extended across the bottom of the tri-fold commencement program, and read, “Success is not final. Failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.”