By Will Broaddus
---- — As the 300 members of St. John’s Prep’s Class of 2013 paraded into the tent for graduation yesterday, the past was walking in front of them.
Literally, that’s because members of the class of 1963 — wearing straw hats rather than mortarboards — were leading the procession.
“It’s a tradition at St. John’s for the 50th reunion class to celebrate their reunion over commencement weekend,” said Beth Forbes, managing director of marketing and communications at the school. “They take part in the baccalaureate mass on Saturday, and they walk in the commencement procession with the seniors on commencement day.”
But in another sense, as the seniors graduated they were carrying on the traditions of the Prep, which will lead them in their lives.
The strength of those traditions was evident yesterday not only in the return of so many graduates from 50 years ago, but also in the acknowledgement of 25 years of service to the school by Spanish teacher Tess Witwicki.
It was apparent in the 33 pairs of Legacy Awards that were handed to sons and fathers who had both graduated from the school, and in the acknowledgement of Bill O’Brien, class of 1988 and the new head football coach at Penn State, as winner of the distinguished alumnus award.
The school’s many traditions were also celebrated by yesterday’s speakers, beginning with senior class speaker Nathaniel Torto, of Marblehead, who was chosen by his classmates to reflect on their legacy.
While stating how proud he was of the volunteer work his class had performed in the community, Torto recognized the founder of the Xaverian Brothers, a lay religious order that sponsors the school and provides its values.
“Prep is huge on service,” Torto said. “My class has done so much for so many people, which is all you can ask for. Somewhere, Theodore James Ryken is super proud of us.”
After acknowledging the athletic and artistic accomplishments of his class, Torto said their shared experience had created lasting bonds.
“Brothers. That’s what the class of 2013 is — brothers,” he said. “And I can’t wait to see all of you at our 20th reunion.”
Valedictorian David Danis, of West Newbury, recalled the hundreds of miles he and his classmates had logged, walking between Xavier and Brother Benjamin halls on campus, and the conversations they conducted along the way.
“Conversations are some of my favorite and most important memories,” he said. “You can learn so much from listening.”
It was lamentable, Danis said, that face-to-face conversations could be in danger of becoming extinct in our digital age.
“Thank you classmates for teaching me so much over the last four years,” he said. “I hope I can continue these conversations with you in the future.”
In his commencement address, English teacher Jay Pawlyk asked students to “re-imagine the word ‘teacher,’” by reminding them of how much they had learned from people outside of class.
He pointed to seniors they visited who had taught them “to play Scrabble like a boss,” and children at Haven from Hunger, who got their homework done in tough circumstances.
“Teachers surround us at every possible moment,” he said. “Only some have degrees.”
Headmaster Edward Hardiman observed that 1,461 days had elapsed since the students’ first day of class at St. John’s, then welcomed them “to the first day of the rest of your lives.”
As he surveyed experiences the students had shared, and considered the futures they would enjoy after graduation, he pointed to spiritual principles that would lead them to experience “a freedom and liberation never before imagined.”
“We often define our lives with landmark events: graduations, marriages, first job or the birth of children,” he said. “If we focus solely on these events, however, we miss a great deal. Our challenge is to be mindful of the extraordinary power of ordinary events.”
Hardiman pointed to the members of the class of 1963 as examples for the students to follow.
“Their journeys following the Prep were punctuated by the Vietnam War, passage of the Civil Rights Act, a great deal of social and political upheaval,” he said. “In the midst of that change there was one constant: their shared experiences on the Prep campus.
“Those experiences called them to something greater, called them to a higher purpose, and formed them to become men of values, men of faith and men of excellence.”
St. John's Prep graduation at-a-glance Days since the class of 2013's first day at school: 1,461 Class size: 300 Number of National Honor Society members: 183 Members not present at graduation: one, Luke Roesler, of Ipswich, who is studying in China Languages taught at St. John's: Chinese, French, Latin, German, Spanish Xaverian Brothers: Founded by Theodore James Ryken (Brother Francis Xavier) in Bruges, Belgium, in 1839, for the education of youth, especially in America