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Published: Saturday, 5/15/2004

Debate commences in Bedford as Kerry plans to address grads

BY JANE SCHMUCKER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

But when Mr. Kerry's presidential campaign responded by volunteering him as a speaker at Bedford's graduation June 6 in the University of Toledo's Savage Hall, the tables were turned on Mr. Spader.

The 18-year-old senior was answering questions from reporters yesterday rather than doing the asking.

The story, it seems, has taken more than one unexpected turn since a Kerry spokesman confirmed that the Democratic candidate would speak.

Some of Mr. Spader's 375 classmates and their parents - including one school board member - are irate that Bedford's graduating seniors will share a stage with Mr. Kerry.

"This is a hijacking of our graduation," said Steven Lennex, an eight-year Bedford board of education member, who has a daughter graduating with Mr. Spader.

Mr. Lennex, who spoke at Bedford's graduation when he was valedictorian in 1969, said he fears the focus of the event will be taken from the students and their accomplishments.

For years, Bedford has not had a guest speaker at graduation; the speeches have come from the valedictorian, salutatorian, senior class president, and student council president. With a presidential candidate speaking in a battleground state during a polarizing campaign, Mr.

Lennex Lennex
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Lennex said he fears "the most sacred event of the school year" will become enthralled with protesters, sightseers, and security.

"Let's preserve a little innocence for these kids," Mr. Lennex said. "Let them have their day in the sun unobstructed by a figure bigger than themselves."

He would feel the same, he said, if the speaker were President Bush, who has not responded to Mr. Spader's request for an interview. And Mr. Lennex said he is disappointed that the administrators made the decision without a formal school board vote.

"They're thinking with stars in their eyes rather than clear thoughts in their head," Mr. Lennex, a real estate broker who is on the June 14 ballot for re-election to the school board, said of the school administration.

Mr. Spader, who will attend the Air Force Academy after graduation, said he thinks having Mr. Kerry as a speaker will encourage more students to vote and to believe that one person's actions do make a difference.

"We have the opportunity to potentially have the next president," said Mr. Spader, who lives in Lambertville. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the students here, whether Republican or Democrat."

Mr. Lennex said he was the only school board member who did not agree.

"It's a good opportunity and something the kids will truly remember," said John Mohr, another board member with a daughter in the graduating class.

Because of Mr. Kerry, the school will issue tickets to graduation, giving each senior 10. But Mr. Mohr, an insurance agent, said he thought his daughter would get tickets for her 11 siblings and other relatives.

One of the first concerns of high school Principal Dennis Caldwell was that Mr. Kerry would not turn the graduation into a political rally.

"We didn't want it to be open to the public," he said. "It's a Bedford event for our kids."

Although he has concerns, he said Mr. Kerry's presence "will define the graduation. What a great democratic lesson. Here's democracy in action, live and in person in front of them."

Mr. Caldwell said he has heard from unhappy students. "They want this event to be our event."

Barbara Maloy, the mother of a graduating son, predicted Mr. Kerry's presence will become a logistical nightmare. When she graduated from Whitmer High School in 1972, then-Gov. James Rhodes spoke.

"You know what I remember from that? The media frenzy."

Meanwhile, Mr. Lennex fretted that the acceptance of Mr.. Kerry's offer will set a bad precedent. "Now if the next student writes a letter to Ozzy Osbourne and he decides he wants to speak at graduation, are we going to allow that?" He used another example with the Monroe Evening News.

"What if next year the Ku Klux Klan or somebody else shows up and says, 'I want to speak at your graduation.' Where do we draw the line here?"

Contact Jane Schmucker at:

jschmucker@theblade.com

or 419-724-6102.



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