The 2013 graduating class of Gainesville High School has many accomplished students who are destined to do something meaningful with their lives.
And now the graduating class includes a few local adults who already have made meaningful contributions to the community and the lives of others.
Principal LaCrisia Larkin and Gainesville City Schools Superintendent Merrianne Dyer presented Dr. T. Richard Davis, Nathaniel Shelton and Lessie Smithgall with honorary diplomas at a reception ceremony Thursday evening at the First Baptist Church on Green Street.
The school has presented exemplary citizens with honorary diplomas for the last five years. Honorary graduates are selected by the high school’s governance council, a panel of faculty, parents and administrators. In order to receive the award, the honorees must not have graduated from Gainesville High School.
Larkin said the diplomas provide the school with an opportunity to appreciate the members of the community who demonstrate the school’s missions, values and traditions in their daily lives.
“This is an opportunity to honor those who really depict what our school’s mission is,” Larkin said. “They have demonstrated excellent work ethic, philanthropy, and are giving back to those coming after them with their time and also at times financially. This is an opportunity for us to recognize those contributions.”
Lessie Smithgall, who founded The Times with her late husband Charles Smithgall in 1947, wore a white graduate gown as Larkin presented her with the diploma.
“I’m so proud,” Smithgall said. “I’m so proud to be an honorary graduate.”
Smithgall laughed as she remembered her own high school days at Girls High School of Atlanta in 1929.
Smithgall, who turned 102 in April, has served as a role model in the community for much of her life. Among many other accomplishments, she and her husband created the 5,600-acre Smithgall Woods in White County and donated 180 acres to the Atlanta Botanical Garden for the creation of the Smithgall Woodland Garden in Gainesville. The garden is expected to open in 2014.
Though Smithgall isn’t planning to march in the graduates’ commencement ceremonies tonight, both Shelton and Davis said they will.
Davis, a longtime Baptist minister and educator, worked as a substitute teacher at Gainesville High School for 15 years until he retired in 2007 at the age of 84.
Davis smiled broadly as he said how excited he was to receive the honorary diploma. He said he’s excited to walk with the seniors at the ceremony.
“You know, when you’re with a group of graduates, you have (to) say, ‘I look back to see where I came from and how well I did when I got through school to learn,’” Davis said. “This is something that is so meaningful to the students. It’s OK to look back and think about where you came from and how you got here and how the teachers teach you, not only to make a living, but also a life worth living. They help you make a living and a life worth living.”
Shelton is remembered at the school for being a teacher who helped students do just that.
He began teaching in Gainesville City Schools at E.E. Butler High School in 1964 and started teaching at Gainesville High School in 1969. Shelton has received a number of awards as an educator and social worker. He retired in 2005 and currently substitutes at Gainesville High School.
Shelton said he will most likely continue to substitute next year but would like to write a book about his experiences as an educator at E.E. Butler High School.
In 1967 he founded the Gents Club, a group of “challenging kids,” at E.E. Butler High School.
He said it was an amazing experience to see what the young men were able to become after they were shown how to succeed in life and how to give back to their communities. Many of those young men grew up to become ministers and businessmen and community leaders around the country. The club lasted for about 26 years.
“It’s something that I really need to write,” Shelton said. “It was such a phenomenal experience and it has so much weight and so many dynamics about it. It was teaching the kids, and working with that population and seeing them turn around. It’s just amazing.”