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10 graduates walk at MMI

Grey skies loomed as a 122-year-old tradition was upheld for the final time on Saturday when 10 students, the final graduating preparatory class Marion Military Institute will produce, crossed the stage to receive their diplomas.

When MMI became a state school in 2006, it was determined that a town the size of Marion could not support two public high schools, forcing MMI to close its preparatory school.

Several students left MMI in short order, and those remaining were faced with a class destined to dwindle with no influx of new students.

As MMI Campus Physician Dr. W. Shane Lee addressed the graduates, he reminded the audience of the turmoil caused by the decision to close the prep school. In the same breath, he reminded the crowd of the importance of this class.

“You, my 10 greatest cadets, ignored the prophets of doom, dug in your heels and chose to stay,” said Lee. “You chose a harder, uncertain and sometimes chaotic path. Your courageous actions may well have saved this institution and this town.

“You 10 cadets gave the community time to plan. Lastly, your actions allowed the proud tradition of Marion Military Institute’s prep school to end with the dignity it deserves.”

The graduates — Hannah Blalock (Marion), Mary Catherine Edwards (Marion), Jaynell Hughes (Marion), Toyin Huntar (Lagos, Nigeria), Timmy Jones Jr. (Paulina, La.), Ben Lee (Marion), Erin Lockridge (Pinson), Erica Thurber (Marion), Marc Turner (Marion) and Ty Yeager (Franklin, Tenn.) approached the stage one-by-one to receive a diploma and adulation.

Two weeks earlier, Yeager joked about being MMI’s final prep school graduate. On Saturday, MMI Preparatory School Principal Dr. Frankie Oglesby, much to his and even her surprise, introduced him as such.

“I really wasn’t expecting it,” said Yeager. “It meant something to me and my whole family. I actually got pretty emotional.”

For Turner, it was not until he made it up the steps that Saturday’s significance hit him.

“It was kind of like a record player going over and over and over again,” Turner said of this class being MMI’s last. “The message didn’t finally hit me until I got called up and I was getting my diploma. I was like, ‘ Wow, graduation day is here. This is it.’ I kind of got that feeling that I feel like some of my classmates got earlier in the week.”

Fittingly, the skies opened up and the rain fell heavily as the class marched out of the chapel to lower the flag from its lofty perch for the last time. All 10 marched to the tune of a lone bagpipe playing “Amazing Grace,” before Edwards, Turner and Yeager broke away to lower the flag.

“You’re looking at each other as you’re lowering the flag with this smile on your face, saying to each other without words, ‘This is it,’” said Turner. “It was a very emotional moment. Words can’t explain it. The line of the flag going through my hand as it was being lowered was one of those ‘wow’ moments.”

The rain didn’t bother Yeager, as he felt its presence added to the moment.

“It looks like a dark, gloomy day right now, but really, this is the perfect setting for lowering the last graduating class’s flag,” said Yeager. “I don’t think there could have been a more perfect day.”

The group returned to the crowd huddled under the chapel’s overhang, and Edwards presented Oglesby with the flag.

“It was very emotional,” said Oglesby. “That was a very moving ceremony. It was very meaningful to all of us.”

With graduation out of the way, students and faculty had an opportunity to remember their time at MMI.

“(The alumni) know the high school for what it was. I think the community’s going to miss it,” said teacher Buzzy Fitts. “It’s sad to see it close because it’s meant so much not only to the school but the community down through the years.”

But Oglesby did not see Saturday as the final mark that will be made by MMI’s preparatory school.

“The prep school has a tremendous history in helping young men and women be great contributors to society,” said Oglesby. “ The effects of Marion Military Institute Preparatory School are going to live a long, long time.

“Today is not its final day, because we have yet to see the contributions that our graduates will make, and I know they’re going to be great.”