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Columbus grads cross the finish line — literally

Pandemic-marked school year ends with 'amazing' graduation at Homestead Speedway

HOMESTEAD | Members of Christopher Columbus High School’s class of 2020 graduated in an unusual way.

Christopher Columbus High School graduate Joseph Rodriguez plays the national anthem on his electric guitar at the start of the graduation ceremony. Because of the pandemic, the Miami school celebrated its graduation at the Homestead Miami Speedway, June 20, 2020.

Photographer: MARLENE QUARONI | FC

Christopher Columbus High School graduate Joseph Rodriguez plays the national anthem on his electric guitar at the start of the graduation ceremony. Because of the pandemic, the Miami school celebrated its graduation at the Homestead Miami Speedway, June 20, 2020.

The Explorers' motto, "Adelante!" is plastered on the board at the Homestead Miami Speedway. Because of the pandemic, Christopher Columbus High School celebrated its graduation at the Homestead Miami Speedway June 20, 2020.

Photographer: MARLENE QUARONI | FC

The Explorers' motto, "Adelante!" is plastered on the board at the Homestead Miami Speedway. Because of the pandemic, Christopher Columbus High School celebrated its graduation at the Homestead Miami Speedway June 20, 2020.

Instead of walking across a stage as their names were called, they crossed the finish line at Homestead Miami Speedway while sitting in the front passenger seat of their vehicles. The school’s longest-serving teacher, 1962 alumnus Carter Burris, waved a checkered flag and the school’s president and principal, standing on the track, handed out blue diploma covers.

The ceremony June 20, 2020 put an exclamation mark on a most unusual school year, marked by the COVID-19 pandemic. The 390 graduates had already received their diplomas and taken part in a virtual commencement May 23, 2020.

"This has been such a challenging year for our class of 2020,” said school principal David Pugh. “Through it all, the class remained determined, unified, and persisted to achieve greatness. In my 22 years as a Marist educator I cannot remember a class having to overcome more obstacles and having to cope with more uncertainty.  We promised we would come through for you with a special graduation ceremony.”

He thanked Al Garcia, president of Homestead Miami Speedway and a 1981 Columbus graduate, for having a great idea. Garcia said he was honored to be able to help his Columbus brothers.

“The speedway will serve as an unforgettable and safe venue for everyone attending,” Garcia had said earlier. “It provides ample space for the cars and an exceptional sound and visual experience.”

Vehicles lined up in three rows on the track as students and their families listened to opening remarks from school administrators, the class salutatorian, valedictorian and "helmsman." They all spoke from a stage on Victory Lane as a small plane flew overhead pulling a “Congrats Explorers” banner. The ceremony was simulcast on the radio for those in their vehicles and a streaming video paid tribute to the frontline heroes of the school’s Marist community. Beeping horns replaced applause. “Pomp and Circumstance” played on the radio.

Christopher Columbus High School's president, Thomas Kruczek, gives a diploma to graduate Daniel Rodriguez. Because of the pandemic, the Miami school celebrated its graduation at the Homestead Miami Speedway June 20, 2020.

Photographer: MARLENE QUARONI | FC

Christopher Columbus High School's president, Thomas Kruczek, gives a diploma to graduate Daniel Rodriguez. Because of the pandemic, the Miami school celebrated its graduation at the Homestead Miami Speedway June 20, 2020.

Thomas Kruczek, school president, noted that the pandemic caused graduating seniors to miss out on many academic, athletic and social events.

“The speedway offered an exciting opportunity for graduates and their families to come together in person while being able to adhere to the Center for Disease Control guidelines,” he said.

Pedro Garcia Casals, the school's curriculum dean, remarked that the school’s 62nd annual commencement took place in a truly unique setting, making for a memorable moment.

“This is a fitting closure as you make it to the finish line in a stylish fashion,” he said.

After the graduates received their ceremonial diplomas, each of their vehicles took a victory lap around the two-mile course. They lined up again and, for a finale, tossed their graduation caps into the air.

Alejandro Quevedo, the student body president and the first student to receive the distinction of "helmsman," remembered classmate Ari Arteaga, who died in a traffic accident before his junior year.

“I know that he is shining his light on us each and every day,” he said. “We continue forward, like our motto, Adelante! The word does not simply mean 'forward'. It’s not so much a direction as it is an attitude. If we take that word with us, we will be unstoppable.”

Class valedictorian Jared Coleman called the event amazing. "This definitely makes up for the traditional ceremony we weren’t able to have," he said.

He noted that the entire school was "blindsided" by the pandemic. "We never saw this ending coming."

But then he added, “Our class will be the first to emerge from a global crisis and rebuild... While I don’t know what tomorrow brings, I will bring it my all, so let’s bring it, Explorers.”

Christopher Columbus High School graduate Marcel Van Hemert applauds as classmates toss their caps into the air at the end of the ceremony. Because of the pandemic, the Miami school celebrated its graduation at the Homestead Miami Speedway June 20, 2020.

Photographer: MARLENE QUARONI | FC

Christopher Columbus High School graduate Marcel Van Hemert applauds as classmates toss their caps into the air at the end of the ceremony. Because of the pandemic, the Miami school celebrated its graduation at the Homestead Miami Speedway June 20, 2020.

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