By Debbie Adams
The William Byrd High School Class of 2021 faced many challenges in the past year due to the pandemic. Sports seasons were curtailed or cancelled. Homecoming, prom, and many traditional senior activities were revamped due to ever-changing guidelines and restrictions from the state. But the administration, faculty, and staff at WBHS did everything in their power to make Graduation Day 2021 for the seniors one to remember.
Instead of the usual ceremony at the Salem Civic Center, graduation was held at Patterson Stadium at Byrd so that families could attend, seated outside in pods, without masks–and attend they did. Families were instructed to join the admission line at 9 a.m. for the 10 a.m. ceremony– and the line was long of those waiting to celebrate the accomplishments of their children.
Seniors and faculty entered the stadium through a balloon archway, then divided into two lines and walked both sides of the track to their seats on the field.
Senior Council President and Valedictorian Natalie Mullins led the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance.
Dog Pound leaders Caroline Gibbs and Keaton Band led students in the traditional “Hum” played at games and pep rallies.
Valedictorian Urunna Anyanwu welcomed the graduates with “we all wondered if this day would ever come. As Terriers we are capable of big dreams and even bigger futures, but only as long as we remain convinced that the impossible is possible.”
Principal Tammy Newcomb noted that this was the 98th annual commencement ceremony for William Byrd High School. She was the principal for most of the students in the Class of 2021 at William Byrd Middle School and then at WBHS.
“This has been a fast seven years,” Newcomb said. “As freshmen you were present for the dedication of this field and now you are the only class to graduate in the stadium. I have treasured our time together.”
She spoke of the “abrupt closure” of schools last spring with the pandemic and the “trials and tribulations” which followed. However, students bonded together, persevered, and learned to adjust. In that experience, “everyone came to value the little things we had always taken for granted.”
“Graduation is a milestone and just a beginning,” she told the Class of 2021. “Always strive to achieve; always be kind to one another; help those less fortunate; and remember, it’s never wrong to do the right thing.”
She told the audience that of the 245 graduates, 168 were wearing gold tassels, indicating that they had earned GPAs of 3.0 or higher and thus were designated as honor graduates. Forty-five had GPAs of 4.0 or higher, qualifying them as valedictorians. One hundred thirty-one were wearing gold pins, indicating they had earned Advanced Study Diplomas; 116 will be attending two- or four-year colleges or universities, or technical trade schools.
She named 11 graduates who will be entering the Armed Forces and thanked them for their commitment: Gavin Ellis, Will McBride, and Zach Minter entering the U.S. Army; Madison Crowder and Zariah Turner enlisting in the Navy; John Belcher, Jamie Cawley, Kollin Slusher, and Tanner Smith joining the U.S. Marine Corps; and Donald McCadden and Seyanah Quiles-Sisk entering the Air Force.
Newcomb introduced the 13 student athletes who will be furthering their athletic careers and education: Dylan Hatfield and Tyler Dean who will be playing baseball at Virginia Tech; Luke Taylor and Hayden Lyles who will be playing baseball at Bluefield College; Isaac Fix who will play baseball at Davidson College; Cabria Mutz who will play basketball at Hollins; Nic Clements who will play soccer at Seton Hill University; Hanna Chappell who will play soccer at Converse College; Blake Sankbeil and Bryson Lutz who will play football at Emory and Henry; and El’Amin Shareef and Ethan Tinsley who will play football at Randolph Macon College.
She applauded Faith Parrish who earned her Associate Degree at Virginia Western while earning her diploma at WBHS.
In addition, Newcomb recognized National Merit Scholar Taylor Dawson who will be attending MIT this fall—where the admission rate is 6.7 percent.
She also introduced Robert Brown and Kevin Genaro who completed apprenticeships while they were full-time students at Byrd.
Sixty-seven graduates have already secured full-time employment in the workforce.
As a whole, the Class of 2021 has accepted $534,311 in scholarships and grants, not counting financial aid.
“Each student graduating is a symbol of success,” Newcomb said. She paid tribute to families and especially the WBHS faculty for their support for students—“job well done.”
She said goodbye to retiring biology teacher Julie Link who has taught for 27 years.
“Continue to work hard, just like you have for the past four years,” Newcomb told the graduates. “Be productive; be honest; be thankful and be kind.”
She quoted from Aristotle saying, “happiness depends on ourselves.”
Top Terrier and Valedictorian Dylan Hatfield delivered the Top Terrier Address. He asked his fellow students, “What is your passion now as you leave Patterson Stadium? What will be your driving force in life?”
As a future Virginia Tech baseball player, he talked about his passion for baseball, commenting that when he was 8 years old, he joined a competitive traveling team, assigned to right field.
“At that age there aren’t many balls hit to right field, so it was the best spot for me,” Hatfield said. “My mom and sister say they would sit in the stands and pray no one would hit a ball in that direction because I probably wasn’t going to catch it. Truth is, I prayed a ball didn’t come my way, too.”
Hatfield said he loved the game and wanted to get better, so his dad started working with him outside of practices and taught him he “did have talent in baseball; I just had to work to develop it. If I had a passion, I needed to go after it and make my dream a reality.
“Each of us has a passion or gift. Will you pursue that passion and more importantly, will you do it well?”
Hatfield quoted from a speech delivered by Martin Luther King to junior high school students.
“When you discover what you will be in your life, set out to do it as if God Almighty called you at this particular moment in history to do it,” King said. “Don’t just set out to do a good job. Set out to do such a good job that the living, the dead or the unborn couldn’t do it any better.”
“If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music, sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.’
“Let’s leave this place and pursue our passion,” Hatfield said. “Let’s be the best at what we do. Don’t let anyone out-work you, out-hustle you. The days you do not feel motivated, be disciplined enough to keeping pushing through.”
Hatfield thanked Newcomb and the faculty at William Byrd for being people who did find the passion and did their jobs well, and helped the Class of 2021 get through the challenges of the year.
“They went above and beyond to give us as much normalcy as possible,” Hatfield said.
Senior members of the William Byrd Choir—Haleigh Bush, Kamryn Dodd, Tess Griffin, Bayla Kessler, Zach Minter, Michelle Price, and Arielle Shiloh—performed “Rainbow” by Kacey Musgraves with the lyrics, “The sky has finally opened, the rain and wind stopped blowin’, there’s always been a rainbow hangin’ over your head. It’ll all be alright.”
Graduate Elizabeth Recktenwald read a poem she composed for graduation, which described the challenges of the past year during the pandemic. COVID has “added value to our time together and it has made a bond between us that is more tightly tethered.”
The Class of 2021 graduates were then called to the stage to receive their diplomas from Principal Tammy Newcomb, along with Assistant Principals Marcee Cook and Travis Anderson, Dean of Students Phillip Martin, and members of the Guidance Department.
The 45 valedictorians led the way: Urunna Anyanwu, Keaton Band, Amna Becirevic, Christopher Blankenship, Sarah Butterworth, Tyler Buxton, Erin Courtemanche, Grayce Dantzler, Olivia Darnell, Taylor Dawson, Kinsey Dollberg, Caroline Dullaghan, Catherine Dullaghan, Elizabeth Fedor, Isaac Fix, Preston Fleitz, Ellen Frary, Andrea Gonzalez, Cade Hanson, Hunter Harris, Dylan Hatfield, Hanna Howell, William Howell, Adithya Iyer, Brooke Johnston, Bayla Kessler, Autumn Krebs, Athena Liao, Kasey McKee, Natalie Mullins, Mathew Pampley, Faith Parrish, Dillon Peters, Michelle Price, Hailey Ramsey, Elizabeth Recktenwald, Emma Roberts, Charlotte Rose, Joseph Sandzimier, Annie Stevens, Emily Summey, Erin Taylor, Mya Travis, Reagan Tuck, and D’aja Williams.
Roanoke County Schools Superintendent Dr. Ken Nicely, Vinton’s School Board representative Tim Greenway, and Hollins’ School Board member David Linden waited at the bottom of the steps to congratulate each graduate. (Dr. Nicely shook the hands of about 1,100 Roanoke County graduates at ceremonies for all five high schools.)