Around 7:30 on a warm June evening 38 years ago, 425 seniors were set to graduate just like any class before them. Mother Nature, however, had a different idea.
“All eyes looked westward to witness a very large and very angry-looking dark cloud charging directly toward our ceremony,” Wheeler graduate Dan Casey said. “As our valedictorian approached and placed onto the podium what was surely to be the greatest speech in the history of all high school graduations, more earth-trembling rumbles were felt, and then a cool breeze danced across the football stadium.
“The valedictorian grasped the podium, cleared his throat, and began a speech to inspire us all. And then, after but a few words, the heavens opened up to disperse onto our heads what we estimated at the time to be all of the remaining water left on the good planet Earth. And to keep things interesting, lightning bolts flicked about to keep us lively.”
Another classmate, John “Maddog” MacCullen, who received his nickname from the late Wheeler football coach Corky Kell, said that even if it had rained for just 10 seconds, it was pouring so hard you would walk away wetter than if you had just jumped into a swimming pool.
“There was really no hope of getting dry,” he said.
Todd Nixon said that once the rain started coming down, pandemonium ensued.
“They told us beforehand that if it started raining, don’t start running across the field like a bunch of little old ladies, but that’s exactly what we did,” said the 56-year-old, who is helping coordinate the “re-graduation” ceremony. “We had 2,000 people trying to get in through a single gate, and it was a torrential rain — what some may call a frog strangler.”
Nixon and MacCullen said everyone from toddlers to grandmothers slid down what had become a huge mud hill near the only exit around the football field.
“People were sliding on their backs,” said Pete Mitchell, another classmate. “A lot of the girls, their dresses were brand-spanking new … there were people covered from the top of their heads to the tips of their toes with mud. I’m not sure if you want to call it a graduation, more like a baptism. People were in fear of their lives.”
When the students and their guests finally made it back into the school, school officials separated the boys from the girls, putting the boys in the cafeteria and the girls in the library because their white gowns had become transparent.
MacCullen said that when the male graduates finished piling into the lunchroom, a number of Wheeler coaches tossed the graduates’ diplomas to them like Frisbees.
“I wound up getting my diploma tossed to me by the wrestling coach,” MacCullen said. “He simply called out, ‘Maddog,’ I said ‘Yo!’ and he just sort of tossed it to me. I will remember that till the day I die.”
Not to be denied their due pomp and circumstance, the classmates are organizing a do-over. The class will hold a traditional graduation ceremony in the Wheeler High auditorium off Holt Road at 6 p.m. on June 2. Family and friends are invited to attend, along with former teachers. The guest speakers will be current Wheeler Principal Dr. David Chiprany, former English teacher Roger Hines and Superior Court Judge Tain Kell, son of Corky Kell.
“We’re interested in seeing what Dr. Chiprany has to say to a group of people who graduated before he did,” Nixon said with a laugh.
The age difference has not escaped Chiprany, who learned about the Class of 1974’s adventure at an open house last June.
“I was five when they graduated,” he said. “We’re taking it seriously though because it’s just a fascinating story. It’s just giving these people a chance to cross the stage, and for many people, it’s just such a big deal.
“The best day of my whole year is when I’m on stage and I get to shake hands or hug every senior and say ‘Congratulations,’ he said. “Now they can come to Wheeler and put it to bed.”
While the alumni are excited about their upcoming “regraduation,” they are having trouble getting in contact with many of their classmates, so they are asking anyone who is interested in participating to call Nixon at (678) 492-6732 or check out the festivities online at www.74regraduation.com.
The graduation activities will begin at 4 p.m. with a “Meet and Greet” hosted by Zaxby’s, followed by a line-up at 5:30 p.m. and the ceremony. Following the event, they are going to take everyone to the football field where they were originally set to graduate 38 years ago for the inaugural cap toss.
The ceremony will cost about $40 per person to participate and between $5 and $10 for tickets to the event.