This class was supposed to have been the first to graduate on the football field. But on April 27, an EF-5 tornado ripped through Smithville, destroying not only the majority of the town, but also the school campus.
Instead, graduation for one of the largest classes in the school’s history was at the Davis Event Center on Itawamba Community College’s Fulton campus.
Of the 68 graduates, around 12 seniors either lost their homes or damage was so severe they had to move. Several of the seniors’ families lost their business.
Valedictorian Joseph Brown and Salutatorian Matthew Cagle made reference to the tragedy of the tornado in their speeches, but emphasized the disaster had a positive effect in bringing the class and community closer together.
‘Buckle down, go forward’
Cagle encouraged his class members and even those in attendance to move on and persevere.
“When adversity hits, people have to be willing to buckle down and go forward. Perseverance pays off,” he said.
Brown was grateful none of the Class of 2011 lost their lives and said, “It’s very important that we’re all here tonight.”
A highlight of the commencement ceremony was when Victoria Blake, Heather Graham and Kenny Coker, representing the Itawamba Agricultural High School Drama Department, presented a check to Smithville High School Principal Chad O’Brian for $10,750.
The crowd in attendance were stunned when the amount of the donation was announced.
Blake, who is the drama teacher at IAHS, and the cast of “Wizard of Oz” were raising money to perform in July at The Orpheum Theatre in Memphis when the tornado hit Smithville.
“We were in lockdown because of tornado warnings and when it was over, our school security came and told us that Smithville had been hit and hit hard,” said Blake. “We were shocked and devastated by the damage and fatalities.”
Blake said the next day everybody was talking about the tornado. IAHS teacher Leah Chamblee had an aunt and uncle killed in the tornado and other family members were hit.
“It was very emotional for us, especially the teachers who had connections to Smithville,” Blake said.
People began saying they thought the money for the performance at The Orpheum should be given to Smithville.
“I went to the teachers who had kids in the Wizard of Oz performance and asked them about taking the money and donating it to Smithville. They all started tearing up and said they were behind me,” said Blake.
A fundraiser planned to raise trip funds continued with all proceeds generated for Smithville instead.
“We had community people coming up and giving money for Smithville,” Blake said. “This became a very community-oriented venture of helping our neighbors in Smithville.”
Next year, the IAHS team will try again for that yellow brick road to Memphis.