NEEDLES — Exuberance tempered by tragedy characterized commencement exercises of the Needles High School Class of 2019.

In all, 75 graduates were certified: 61 from regular classes, 12 from the school’s Educational Training Center and two from the Community Day School. There were five valedictorians, 26 honors graduates and 16 life members of the California Scholarship Federation in the class, which attracted nearly $2.5 million in scholarship commitments over the next four years.

Tragedy struck the class early and hard. Graduating seniors Trevyn Diaz and Jose Sanchez stepped forward to give an emotional address remembering Pete Rodriguez V killed, with his father and grandfather, in a tragic car accident on March 30, 2011.

“That day forever changed our class,” said Diaz. “I’d like to believe we became closer, became stronger, chose love over anger and sadness.”

A picture of the youngest of the ‘3 Petes’ for which a memorial youth fund and a ball field in Needles are named spent the evening in a place of honor in front of the podium.

Tragedy struck again just five days before the commencement exercises, Sanchez reported, when classmate and standout Mustang football player John Perez was severely injured in a car crash. “He’s still in the hospital and cannot be here with us tonight. We want John and his family to know we are all keeping him and his family in our thoughts and prayers … We love you guys both.”

A spirit of tempered exuberance seemed to permeate comments made by other class members as well. Said Morgan Phillips in her valedictory address: “… I’ve learned that it’s okay to struggle, to not know where to go or how to get there but most importantly I’ve learned that we must keep getting up whenever life knocks us down. We will fall, we will rise, we will struggle, we will succeed and we will fail … Never forget where you came from. We may be a small town but we have big dreams. I wish every one of you success into your new future. I know many of you will go far.”

The theme of a small town with big dreams was consistent as well. Jadyn Ybarra, preceding Phillips in offering his valedictory address, said: “… I’d like us all to cherish the great things we’ve experienced here. None of us should forget where we came from but by all means go somewhere else. Understand that all you could ever want is right outside our back yard, even if your heart desires to come back. That’s okay, but you should at least try. Always be open to something new and new people ’cause it will help your personal growth and you’ll be happy you did.”

Opening Needles High School’s 113th commencement with her valedictory address Ryly Payson, the first Lady Mustang to enter a military academy capping a high school career as homecoming queen, leading lady of the drama club, cheer squad leader and a lead performer with Dance Trax 51, encouraged her classmates to, “Be the hardest worker in the room … No more making excuses as to why you aren’t pushing yourself to perfection. You cannot grasp the fullness of this life if you’re just trying to coast through it. In order to get something you’ve never had, you must be willing to do something you’ve never done.

“Find your purpose. Everyone has one. If you haven’t found one, look for it. For those who have, be the hardest worker in the room until it’s yours.”

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