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Johnson Creek High graduates look at past, present, future

June 12, 2017 GMT

There was a central theme to Johnson Creek High School’s 2017 graduation, one that tied in with the class motto.

“What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson well over a century ago.

The past, the present and the future were addressed by the three seniors who spoke at the Sunday afternoon commencement ceremony, and guest speaker Pat Cerroni echoed that theme himself as 45 seniors bid farewell to Johnson Creek High.

The ceremony was held in the newly named Weis Center — one of the five “domes” in the new high school. The dome earned the name due to a $150,000 contribution from Dale Weis, whose family has had three generations at the high school over the years.

The past, present and future came together this year for Johnson Creek, which opened its new high school in the fall. This year’s 45 seniors were the first to graduate in the structure, which combines the middle school and high school into the five domes, with separate classrooms but a shared gymnasium and cafeteria/auditorium.

The latter was packed Sunday with friends and family, who settled in to listen to Superintendent Michael Garvey and first-year principal Neil O’Connell, as well as guest speakers.

“It may not seem that cool right now, but I’m sure it’ll seem pretty special in about 25 years when you come back,” O’Connell told the graduating seniors. “This class is also pretty special to me because it’s my first class as principal.”

Among the other firsts this year was the institution of the cum laude system at the high school. Eight students graduated cum laude, four magna cum laude and three — Elysa Doherty, Victoria Nizzi and Kaitlyn Woodward — earned the highest honor of summa cum laude, and the right to speak at Sunday’s graduation.

In his remarks, Cerroni, a 1984 Johnson Creek graduate, admitted that he wanted nothing to do with his hometown — or college — when he reached high school graduation.

Noting that he was going to speak his mind, Cerroni — now the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh head football coach who took his team to the national title game this fall — spared no one in roasting his former teachers, including comparing one to Nazi SS training in the classroom.

He also said there were no people more “cocky” than high school seniors.

“Right now, you are the cockiest people on the planet,” he said, drawing laughter from the audience. “You think you’re so great, because today is your day, and that’s true.

“But tomorrow, you’re going to have to wake up, and reality’s going to set in a hurry.”

He recalled that his desire to get away from Johnson Creek took him to the U.S. Air Force. With a 2.4 high school gradepoint average, Cerroni said, he just didn’t see college in his future, or even Wisconsin for that matter.

“I was never coming back to Johnson Creek and I was never going to college,” he stated of his goals when he left.

What he learned in the Air Force, though, carries him still today. He told the seniors that they could leave Sunday and change what they didn’t like about themselves, something he learned to do.

“Every step in my journey, that’s how it’s been,” Cerroni said, adding that the Air Force gave him a “ton of self-confidence.”

It also exposed him to diversity, making the point that the small-town graduates of Johnson Creek would have to learn how to work with the diverse populations wherever they were headed.

He told the story of having a Muslim on his football team, Mo Farraj, as well as two Jewish players. He unabashedly made fun of himself for ordering only ham sandwiches once to feed the team, unaware, he said, that they did not eat pork. He also hugged Farraj’s mother when he met her, which surprised the Muslim woman.

“I’m Italian, it’s what I do, I hug people,” Cerroni said.

When Farraj explained his mother was Muslim, Cerroni apologized and asked if he had offended her.

Cerroni said he was told, “Coach, you’re the only white man she’s gotten a hug from. You’re good.”

Cerroni said the three players often take pictures of themselves together, and post them to social media.

“They say, ’see? Palestinians and Jews … they can get along,” Cerroni said. “These people, they’re good people.”

After the Air Force, Cerroni decided he wanted to become a teacher.

“I wanted to pursue things in life that were important to me, and teaching was one of them,” said Cerroni, who became interested in coaching while he was at the school.

He also was married with their first child on the way, and ended up playing just one year of college football after his coach cut him from the team, doing him a favor, Cerroni said.

Cerroni coached at both Catholic Memorial High School and Menomonee Falls, where he learned to teach, as well. He originally was going to turn down the job offer at UW-Oshkosh, where he was initially hired as an assistant coach in 2000.

In wrapping up his comments, he urged students to have the confidence to make their own decisions. Cerroni said that if students didn’t feel ready for college, “don’t do it.”

“I was in the Air Force for four years,” he said. “I was never going to go to college, and now I have a master’s degree.”

He said the moral of the story was that Johnson Creek was a better place than he originally thought — and the home of important people, past, present and future.

“I have never, ever been embarrassed about this town,” he said. “I’ve been all over the place.

“Every time someone asks me where I’m from, I say, ‘Johnson Creek, Wisconsin.’”

Cerroni was honored as the Johnson Creek Education Foundation Alumnus Award winner. Award winners must be graduated for at least 10 years from Johnson Creek and distinguished themselves.

Cerroni has been head coach of the UW-Oshkosh football team since 2007, and led the team to its first-ever Stagg Bowl appearance this fall, the NCAA Division 3 football title game. The Titans lost to Mary-Hardin Baylor, 10-7.

The Johnson Creek alumni also taught and coached at Catholic Memorial and Me­nomonee Falls high schools.

After Cerroni finished, the three summa cum laude students each got up with a single word on their minds. Doherty took “past,” while Woodward took “present.” Nizzi spoke last, about “future.”

Doherty started off by pointing out there are 171,476 words in the dictionary, and defined “past” for the crowd, pointing out that everyone has one and that “it made it who they are today.”

She went on to say that a good family is a critical element in growing up. She gave shout outs not only to her parents and siblings, but to her “adopted family” as well, adding that they should know who they are and that they are important to her.

Doherty finished by pointing out that “a life is only as great as the people a person spends it with.”

“Cherish the friends and family that have made you who you are today and throw out a couple of ‘thank yous’ and ‘I love yous’ on the way,” she said. “A past is as significant as a present and a future, for it holds important information about who you are, but, friends and classmates, don’t be afraid to move forward for someday, you will be an intricate part of someone else’s past.”

Woodward followed by saying that it’s possible to get so caught up in the future that people forget about the present.

“The present is right now and we are the present,” she explained. “It is not any specific time or place or milestone. It is every second that we live.”

She went on to say that teammates, family members, co-workers, friends and teachers shaped the present that class members had to make the effort to live in, pointing out that it’s easy to procrastinate.

“Don’t,” Woodward said. “There is no guarantee that you will wake up tomorrow morning, and the fact that you woke up today is a miracle.

“Enjoy every moment.”

Nizzi then wove the elements together by saying, “the future is derived from the past and decided by the present.”

She went on to say that three pieces of advice helped shape her: failure, persistence and motivation.

Her sisters, Nizzi said, taught her that she would, eventually, fail at something, and added that failure is a chance to “prove what we can do and reevaluate who we are.”

Nizzi said her mother taught her persistence by pursing her career goals in spite of being told women weren’t engineers. Her mother eventually graduated from Iowa State University with a degree in engineering and has worked at the same job for 30 years.

She spoke finally about motivation.

“Motivation is not always tangible; it is not always physical,” Nizzi said. “It is what comes to our minds when we are close to breaking to remind us why we do what we do.

"The road ahead of us will not be easy,” she added. “Over the past 12 years, I have genuinely come to believe that people in this class are capable of great things and believe that we will make an impact on the world around us.”

Two other awards were presented before students were presented their diplomas. Logan Morehouse earned the Academic Excellence Scholar Award, a full tuition payment covered half by the state and half by the college Morehouse will attend, the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The Wisconsin Technical Excellence Scholarship, again, full tuition paid half by the state and half by the technical college chosen by the student, was given to Leslie Avalos.

Avalos is attending Madison Area Technical College to major in nursing.