Milestone moment: RFA celebrates 150th commencement

Dave Gymburch
Staff writer
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Posted 7/1/19

The sun burst through during Rome Free Academy’s milestone 150th annual commencement Saturday morning, shining on graduating students’ accomplishments as well as the pride and excitement of …

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Milestone moment: RFA celebrates 150th commencement

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The sun burst through during Rome Free Academy’s milestone 150th annual commencement Saturday morning, shining on graduating students’ accomplishments as well as the pride and excitement of families and friends in attendance.

The ceremony drew well over 2,000 people to RFA Stadium to see about 289 students get diplomas, with the weather ignoring forecasts of potential rain that had prompted concerns among some parents in the days leading up to it.

“You kind of wondered the night before” what the weather would be, but “it looked good in the morning” before the ceremony, said Phil vanLieshout, father of graduate Alyssa vanLieshout.

“She obviously worked hard....She stayed with it....I’m very proud of my daughter,” he added. He also praised the efforts of teachers and administrators, adding students would “not be there without good teachers.”

For David and Julie Winberg, parents of graduate Alyssa Winberg, it marked the graduation of their third and youngest child.

“I can’t believe it’s finally here...the third one graduating,” said Julie. Her husband David cited the pride they felt, also noting he and Julie were both RFA grads and it was nice to carry it through with their children including the last one being in the 150th graduating class.

Rhonda Clark, parent of graduate Kyle Clark, had attended some other RFA graduations in recent years “but it’s little different when it’s your own” child. The graduation was “exciting” and “I thought I was going to lose it” when the RFA band played “Pomp and Circumstance” during the opening processional of students, she commented. “I started to get teary...eyes watering.”

Julie Winberg, whose maiden name was Alessi, and Clark, whose maiden name was Mazzacua, both were members of the RFA Class of 1984 whose graduation ceremony was held in the Capitol Theatre instead of RFA Stadium because of rain. They had feared, based on weather forecasts for Saturday, that this year’s commencement might face a similar situation; bad weather Saturday would have meant a postponement to Sunday, and the graduation ultimately would have been held in the RFA gym if the weather had still been bad Sunday.

Julie Winberg observed she was in “one of the few classes not to graduate at RFA Stadium.” She was “glad it didn’t rain” Saturday, and “everyone held their breath with the weather forecast.” Clark was “a little scared” beforehand that the ceremony might get rained out, but “I wasn’t worried....There’s nothing you can do” about it.

Overall, the parents enjoyed the pace and presentation of the ceremony.

The school “put a lot into it....It was nice....I thought they put it together well....The crowd was into it,” said vanLieshout.

David Winberg said it was “an excellent ceremony,” commenting the student speeches were poignant and personal which was “kind of nice” while also addressing their classmates. He described the ceremony as “short and sweet.”

Clark said the school has the ceremony “down to a science” in its organization and flow for such a large number of students. It was “done in an hour” and did “not feel rushed,” she added.

Rome school district Superintendent Peter C. Blake said “the commencement was once again a wonderful occasion for the students and their families.” The weather “was never a concern and it was a beautiful morning that turned into a perfect morning by the end of the ceremony,” he remarked.

Being in RFA’s 150th commencement “was amazing and is something that the students will never forget,” Blake remarked. “I also don’t think that they will recognize the significance of it until further down the road into adulthood. For them, the moment of the day was receiving their diploma and hearing their name announced. This important milestone for the students outweighs the significance of the commencement.”

For the community, added Blake, “the 150th commencement is a big deal as there aren’t many high schools in the state that can say they have been around since the days of the Civil War. It’s tough to put into perspective because it’s a moment that is so rare for public schools in New York....”

David and Julie Winberg said the burial of a time capsule at the RFA school by Class of 2019 officers, to be opened in 50 years, was an interesting initiative.

Being part of the 150th commencement was “really exciting,” said Clark, and she thought more might be done to mark it during the ceremony itself. Having the 150th commencement was “neat...kind of cool,” vanLieshout observed.

The 150th commencement was recognized in a state Legislative Resolution by Sen. Joseph Griffo and Assemblywoman Marianne Buttenschon, Blake pointed out via Twitter, thanking them.

Separately from the time capsule project, the appreciation gift from the RFA Class of 2019 is a table and two chairs that will be in the school’s main lobby.

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