Draped in black gowns and topped in mortar boards, 31 young adults strolled two by two into Ell-Saline’s gymnasium Saturday – some in colorful sneakers, others in boots or high-heeled shoes.
They sat down in chairs facing a stage and podium, flanked on three sides by some 1,200 people, most of them family and friends.
There were welcomes and accolades as cameras were kept busy both up close and far away.
Then commencement speaker, Josh Svaty, told them they were “nobodies from nowhere.”
For a person with Kansas state representative, secretary of agriculture, Environmental Protection Agency senior adviser and vice president of The Land Institute among his titles, the farmer and agricultural and environmental consultant from Ellsworth County surprised the crowd into paying attention.
“It was kind of a shock,” said Dakota Came, class president and one of five class valedictorians. He was the class member who asked Svaty to speak.
“I didn’t know exactly where he was going with it,” Came said. “In the end, it made sense. I really liked it.”
Svaty stepped to the podium and said, “So let me tell you where the world thinks you rank.”
He suggested that to be a success to the masses, you must attend an “Ivy League school and study business and finance.” The most successful will work in New York, Los Angeles or Houston, he said, but you also can be proud to earn a living in a smaller metropolis, such as Kansas City or Chicago. Wichita might do, Svaty added.
“Below that are the Salinas of the world,” he said, a city that’s on the fringe of those that are defined by the number and brands of fast-food restaurants within their limits.
Smaller ones are described by the number of stoplights.
And then there’s Brookville, Svaty said.
“You have one stoplight, for road construction, and that doesn’t count,” he said. “You are a nobody from nowhere.”
As the speech continued, Svaty told of the formula for big-city kids: a 4.0 grade point average that later became a 4.5 for students who complete community projects, go on mission trips or maybe attend a nature camp. They fill up their resumes with the same things.
It’s not that way in places like Brookville, Svaty said, where there are dirt streets, and many a youngster grows up “standing next to Dad, who’s using a set of clippers on a 1,400-pound steer. You get a completely different experience.”
Not to worry, he said, because in the end, employers “are looking for something different.”
Svaty went on to talk about two late icons in Brookville – farmer Leland Johnson and longtime teacher Pat Lindquist – whom he met while campaigning for the 108th District seat in the Kansas House.
Leland was full of great stories, Svaty said, and Pat loved the town and Ell-Saline schools.
“They’re people that I bet that some of you, as 18, probably knew,” Svaty said. “If I were giving this same speech at a Shawnee Mission school (Kansas City), to a class of say, 600; unless they were related (to a Leland or Pat), I’d doubt if they would know some really old guy or really old woman in their community.
“That is significant.”
The 36-year-old ex-lawmaker and bureaucrat, then touched on politics.
“We have a problem governing ourselves. We allow ourselves to get boxed into little groups that don’t really want to interact, and we really don’t know what to do about it,” Svaty said. “That’s not true for nobodies from nowhere.”
In places like Brookville, he said, sometimes you have to sit next to someone in church that you don’t really like or seldom agrees with you.
“Knowing somebody like that is critically important. They’ve taught you to understand people,” Svaty said. “When you’re a nobody from nowhere, you actually have to respect people, whether you like them or not.”
He closed by suggesting that being from someplace unique might be beneficial.
“When you go forward, value that you experienced different people with different backgrounds,” Svaty said.
His message was met with rousing applause.
“I thought his speech had a great message, to know where you came from and use what you know from the people who were around you,” Dakota Came said.
After the 10 minutes or so it took to hand out 31 diplomas, Svaty spent most of an hour mingling with folks.
“That was excellent. You nailed it,” Dennis Shoemaker of Glen Elder said to Svaty as the crowd moved outside for pictures. Shoemaker’s nephew, Spencer Kochanowski, was among the graduates.
“We need more people to give kids these kinds of speeches,” Shoemaker said. “It’s good for the kids.”
The Class of 2016 was a typical class that did some ornery things, said Susan Wildeman, the Ell-Saline middle and high school principal, including stealing her candy and serving detentions for being late.
But the group also did remarkable things, such as 17 of the 31 completing the Kansas Regents Curriculum; taking tougher classes to make ready for higher education.
The valedictorians – Morgan Parker, Catelyn Richards, Noah Bradley, Riley Drees and Came – provided an address by committee, taking the audience through everything from burning eyebrows, wondering if the Brookville school was haunted and collecting special memories.
Through it all, Bradley proclaimed, “I have the tools needed.”
“We’re a group that’s well-rounded and diverse,” Came said. “We can potentially do anything we put our minds to.”
He added that it seemed like yesterday when they were all in grade school, and they didn’t realize then that their youths “were running out.”
But in a flash, they were leaving the gym with some more wisdom to ponder. Among the last glimpses was graduate Emily Stelter’s decorated mortarboard, quoting Dr. Seuss: “Your mountain is waiting.”
Reporter Tim Unruh can be reached at 822-1419 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.