In many ways, last night was a typical commencement ceremony for the graduates of Lake High School.
Proud parents cheered for their children in caps and gowns, family members were all smiles as they posed for pictures, and the teenagers hugged and wiped tears of joy from their eyes.
But last night was bittersweet for many of the graduates who officially ended their high school careers in the wake of devastating tornadoes that claimed the life of their valedictorian's father and laid waste to the school where they spent the past four years.
Valedictorian Katie Kranz, whose father, 46-year-old Ted Kranz, was among the five people killed by the powerful storm, did not take the podium last night at the graduation, which was to have been Sunday at the high school. Instead, it was held last night at Owens Community College.
Graduate Nicole Schulte, a close friend of Miss Kranz, addressed the graduates as a class speaker with the same speech she had prepared to read at Lake High School - making reference to "these hallways" and fighting tears to complete her remarks.
Miss Schulte said the loss for Miss Kranz was devastating.
"I know she will pull through like a trouper," Miss Schulte said. "She has made it through a lot and she will make it through this."
Lake Schools Superintendent Jim Witt began the ceremony with a welcomed promise. "You have my word and the word of the board of education that the Lake High School will be together somewhere come August," he told the 110 grads and more than 2,300 family members and friends.
"We will continue to grieve for the loss of loved ones and soon we will bury those who perished last Saturday night," Mr. Witt said.
After the nearly two-hour ceremony, Mr. Witt said the evening hopefully had been a respite for those who had lost loved ones or their homes and that the Kranz family is grieving but "buoyed by the thought that Ted was here tonight in spirit."
He added: "When Katie received her diploma, I told her that he is watching, he has the best seat in the house, and he is very, very proud of her."
Hundreds of residents were still cleaning up yesterday after tornado winds caused an estimated $100 million in damage in Wood County alone. In addition to demolishing Lake High School, the township administration building was destroyed with at least 50 houses. Also among the dead were Hayden Walters, 4, and his mother, Mary Walters of Main Street, Millbury; Bailey Bowman, 20, of Walbridge, who was picked up and tossed by the tornado as she and her boyfriend were trying to take refuge at the Lake Township police station, and Kathy Hammitt, a Wauseon resident in her 50s, who was struck by airborne debris while driving on State Rt. 795.
Mary Jo Soncrant, mother of two girls at the school - including one who graduated last night - said the students held together well given the destruction.
"I have a daughter who is a freshman, going to be a sophomore, and it's been really tough on her," she said. "I think the announcement that they would all be together really helped."
Sixteen-year-old Samatha Gomez, who starts her junior year in August, had been afraid of being separated from her friends for the final two years of high school.
"The school was destroyed and I was bawling my eyes out," she said. "It's been hard on everyone."
The commencement last night - the 99th for Lake High School - attracted a minor circus of media, including at least 16 television cameras and reporters from several cities.
Margene Akenberger, Lake Schools board member, acknowledged that they would rather be at their high school building.
"Even though the events of this weekend, the dark cloud that has been put over our community, we need to lift our hearts and our heads," she said.
"The storm devastated our community, it destroyed our school, it broke our hearts, but it cannot take away what you have accomplished and it certainly won't break your spirit," she said. "As we dig ourselves out from the rubble you will find the strength to move forward."
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