White River graduates show respect and compassion community has come to know

Eric Passeau reads a congratulatory card after commencement exercises Saturday while family check out his diploma. -
Eric Passeau reads a congratulatory card after commencement exercises Saturday while family check out his diploma.
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The Courier-Herald

White River High School Principal Keith Banks calls the class of 2003 a group that achieves and cares.

Its compassion couldn't have been more evident than at Saturday night's commencement exercises when fellow graduate, Buckley resident and World War II veteran Richard Forsythe, collapsed during the opening processional. His peers and the crowd of more than 3,000 patiently, graciously, respectfully and quietly waited while paramedics tended to him and carried him on a stretcher to a nearby hospital, delaying the evening by 20 minutes.

And then the crowd at Olson Auditorium on the Pacific Lutheran University campus in Tacoma showed him the respect a veteran and graduate deserves by giving him a standing ovation.

Then under the glare of flashbulbs that made the ceremony look like the Superbowl, the class of 2003 started the ceremony over again.

Banks, who emceed the event, was impressed with the community's respect and thanked them for their support. He also briefly honored all the fathers in the audience before getting down to the business at hand - graduation.

He started with the graduates' achievements in academics, music, athletics and other areas, and noted this class will walk away with close to $730,000 in scholarship money.

He then spoke of the group's foremost characteristic, respect.

"I can't tell you how many times strangers have come to our campus and are amazed students open doors for them," Banks said.

Banks then introduced senior class speaker Tabitha Jensen who spoke to the class about "Looking Forward."

The WRHS chamber choir seniors sang "What a Difference You've Made in My Life."

Banks then introduced salutatorian Michelle Talbot, who graduated with a 3.990 grade-point average, and valedictorian Kayla Simons who graduated with a 3.995 gpa. Both received Dr. Suess' "Oh The Places You'll Go" and a dictionary. Then Simons presented "Remember the Bonds" and spoke of the tight-knit family at White River which includes students, staff, parents and community, and reminded students the definition of commencement means beginning, not end.

Simons was announced winner of the Faculty Award, which for the first time has scholarship money attached. Retiring librarian Claudia Bertholf presented the $500 scholarship, which was collected through a faculty fund-raising effort, to Simons, because she is a student that inspires the staff to do better.

Keynote speaker Todd Jensen, a WRHS graduate, reminded students the path one heads down, may have twists. Now a student at the University of Washington, he told the class two years ago he sat in their seats and listened to WRHS graduate and KIRO-TV sports anchor Greg Inglin talk. Jensen went to the UW to play football, but "after two years of football I realized it wasn't going to take me where education will." Today, he's an assistant for Inglin.

Before presenting the class to the school board for diplomas, Superintendent Jay Hambly took a few moments to fill in for honored speaker Richard Forsythe and tell Forsythe's story. Forsythe left high school in 1941 to join the Marines and fight for the United States during World War II. He later fought in the Korean Conflict. He never received a diploma. Recently, the state Legislature passed a law allowing veterans to receive honorary diplomas from high schools in their communities. The Class of 2003 invited Forsythe to join them in receiving his.

"What impresses me with this class is they give, and give and give," Hambly said.

He then asked the class to remember and pray for Forsythe and cheer and holler loud enough for him to hear them from his nearby hospital bed.

Unbeknownst to graduates at the time, Forsythe died at St. Claire Hospital in Tacoma due to an aneurysm in his stomach. His daughter, Cheryl Wilson, said he was so proud to be walking with the class of 2003. She said, had he realized his collapse had upset the graduation ceremony he would have felt terrible.

"He didn't want the focus to be on him. He didn't want the community and students to think he was an old man clinging to past glories," she said. "And they didn't. They embraced him. I understand they gave him a standing ovation when his name was read and he wasn't there."

That's a sign, administrators said, of the compassion the White River class of 2003 possesses.

And then under the usual fervor of pomp and circumstance, beach balls and bubbles, the class of 2003 became graduates of White River High School.

Brenda Sexton can be reached at

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