The usual “Pomp and Circumstance” could be heard coming out of Joliet Catholic Academy’s Student Activity Center, but this was no ordinary graduation ceremony for Nick Rodriguez and Jill Hickey.
Rodriguez and Hickey, senior students at JCA, were among the escorts for eight men and women from the Sunny Hill Nursing Home — ranging in age from 75 through 99 — who were recognized Tuesday as the Honorary Class of 2012. The commencement exercise included background stories of each individual.
“They struggled growing up,” Rodriguez said of the Sunny Hill graduates. “We kind of had things handed to us. After hearing about their lives, I’m definitely more thankful to my parents and to JCA for my life.”
“I’ll be graduating in a couple of weeks, but I was nervous for them,” Hickey said. “I thought it was really neat for them to be able to experience this because they didn’t have the same opportunity growing up.”
Rodriguez, the son of Felipe and Janie of Plainfield, and Hickey, the daughter of Dan and Sharon of Oswego, sat behind their Sunny Hill graduates and were humbled by the stories as told by Bill Pender, JCA’s Assistant Principal. The hardships, and joys, of the Great Depression rang true to the Class of 2012.
“It was wonderful and they seemed to be very happy that we were doing this for them,” Rodriguez said. “It shows they grew up in tough times, but they took great pride in this, and I take great pride in JCA."
“After all this time having gone by in their life, it was really nice to see them graduate,” Hickey said. “It was neat to see the husband and wife, married for 61 years, be able to graduate with each other.”
Abraham Green, 94, and his wife Irene, 86, were introduced back-to-back to a round of applause. Green’s family owned a farm and his father fell ill, cutting his academic career short. From a family of 10 siblings, Irene had to help out at home, which was the case for many in the years before World War II.
Rosetta Chandler, 89, was escorted by Hickey. She completed two years of high school before going to work at a local hospital. Margaret Morgan, 75, moved away from home and was uncomfortable attending a much larger school. She returned to Joliet and worked at Sunny Hill for 18 years.
Mildred Orlovich, 99, was almost 16 when she left school because times were tough, but Mildred’s husband was a teacher in Joliet. Eula Ragin, 90, was a hard-working single mother of seven children and an expert speller. She’s proud that all of her children were able to graduate from high school.
Artimese Roberson-Bey, 90, was unable to finish high school, having to work instead, but she remembered having a lot of friends. Bertha Ulmer, 87, was raised by her grandmother. She would have loved to finish school but had to work as well, and she still attended church every Sunday.
After an opening prayer by the Rev. Jeff Smialek, Pender and JCA Principal and CEO Jeffrey Budz presented each graduate with an honorary diploma. And Budz welcomed all eight to the JCA family.
“Today is a special day,” Budz said. “Eight special people, each of whom had to learn life lessons and endure experiences we don’t take lightly, are now Hilltoppers and Angels. We’re so very proud of you.”
And, as Rodriguez said, proud of JCA.