Sunday, May 28, 2000

Graduates mourn teen


Loss of classmate hits hard at graduation

By Sheila McLaughlin
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[photo] BILLY JOE HIGHLANDER (RIGHT) HUGS CHUCK HARRIS IN FRONT OF A CHAIR HOLDING A GRADUATION ROBE AND FLOWERS WHERE TONY HOFFMAN WOULD HAVE SAT.
(Tony Jones photo)
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        WILMINGTON — Less than 24 hours after he drowned on a senior canoe trip in Warren County, Tony Hoffman's chair was empty Saturday when his classmates graduated from Clinton Massie High School without him.

        But the 116 students who gathered for the ceremony at Wilmington College couldn't forget the popular 18-year-old athlete they had voted best-looking and best-dressed in the Class of 2000.

        Distraught, some sobbing uncontrollably, students accepted their diplomas and, on the way back to their seats, paused at the spot where Tony should have been seated.

        Each graduate laid a white rose, the class flower, on the tan metal folding chair in tribute to Tony.

        Chuck Harris, Tony's best friend who saw his friend die Friday, laid down a medal he had won in school sports. He knelt before the chair and wept.

hoffman
Tony Hoffman
        Graduates wore red ribbons pinned over their hearts on bright blue robes in Tony's memory. They rose to give an ovation when his twin brother, Vinnie, silently accepted Tony's diploma in his memory.

        “We're a little-bitty school, and everybody knows everybody,” School Board President Ron Bradshaw said.

        “That's a good thing. But when something like this happens, it touches everyone. He was a good boy.”

        Tony, who played defensive back and halfback on the football team and was a member of the track team, died about 3 p.m. Friday at Todd's Fork, an offshoot of the Little Miami River in Morrow. He was among about 30 students and teachers on a daylong canoe trip that school officials described as a senior tradition for years.

        Police said Tony and a small group stopped at Todd's Fork to swim before turning in their canoes. Tony began flailing his arms and went under.

        His friends frantically tried to save him from the creek, which there was about 9 feet deep. A rescue team strung a rope across the water and found Tony, but efforts to revive him failed.

        School officials decided to go ahead with the graduation ceremony after meeting Friday night with about 60 students and Tony's family, Superintendent Ron Rudduck said.

        “They have another son who is graduating, too,” Mr. Rudduck said.

[photo] VALEDICTORIAN RACHEL HOWELL TEARFULLY GIVES HER SPEECH AS SCHOOL BOARD MEMBER CINDY GIBSON STANDS BY HER SIDE.
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        On Saturday, grief overshadowed what should have been a joyous occasion celebrating a new beginning for the graduating teens.

        Speakers at the ceremony at Herman Center, about 50 miles from Cincinnati, expressed their sadness.

        Valedictorian Rachel Howell cried as she addressed the class, flanked by a school board member who sprang up to console her.

        “I know he's standing here with me, helping me get through this,” Ms. Howell said. She called Tony a “great friend” who was now their “guardian angel.”

        “Recollections of our senior year are going to be different now,” said senior Anthony Brigano, who presented Vinnie Hoffman with a plaque in Tony's memory. “We will remember yesterday more than we did today, at least those of us who were there.”

        Outside the building, classmate Dale Whalen appeared lost after the ceremony as he waited for his parents to find him. He held his head in his hands, looking up and breathing deeply.

        His eyes were red-rimmed and glassy. He had been crying since he arrived at the ceremony.

        “It's been pretty rough today,” he said with a sigh.

        Enquirer reporters Earnest Winston and Dan Klepal contributed to this report.

       



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