Always an Olympian: East celebrates its Class of 2023 and changes for the future

Mike Wolanin | The Republic Quarin Bailey, left, helps classmate Chesney Carr with her cap before the commencement ceremony for Columbus East’s class of 2023 at Columbus East High School in Columbus, Ind., Saturday, May 27, 2023.

For Columbus East salutatorian Anna Liimatta, the first day of high school was memorable in part because she tripped in the cafeteria, spilled her food everywhere and burst into tears.

Now, four years later, Liimatta said there was a “full circle moment” on her final day of senior year, as she tripped while walking up the stairs. This time, however, she was able to laugh it off, and she encouraged her peers to do the same and persevere.

“As we go on with the rest of our lives, I hope with every stumble you face, you are reminded of your time here at East and are able to get right back up and keep going,” she said. “Because if there’s anything we’ve learned these past four years, it’s to keep going.”

East High School, which celebrated its 50th anniversary this school year, held graduation Saturday morning. The ceremony was held in a tightly packed Orange Pit gym, so much so that some attendees stood during the festivities.

At times, the event was bittersweet, such as when valedictorian Caitlyn Smith asked for a moment of silence to remember classmates whose lives were lost to “illness, accidents and tragedy.”

However, Smith also provided hope in her speech, as she encouraged her fellow graduates to pursue their own unique paths.

“Success looks different for everyone,” she said. “Moving beyond the expected, doing what’s best for you whether it be academically, socially or emotionally is the very best thing you can do for yourself. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks. It doesn’t matter what they want you to be. It doesn’t matter who they want you to be. By defining your own success, you’ll be sure to create it.”

The ceremony marked the start of a new journey not just for students, but also for outgoing principal Mark Newell. After 15 years in this role, Newell is set to become the director of adult and alternative education at the McDowell Education Center in July. Michael Parsons, the principal at Clifty Creek Elementary, will become the new East principal.

As Newell addressed the graduates, he advised them that building relationships is an important part of navigating life, and a prerequisite to having good relationships is being kind and selfless to others.

“When you take the time to put yourself out there with no expectation of receiving anything, it comes back tenfold to you,” he said.

For Newell, part of that reward was the appreciation of students, whose senior class gift was a Columbus “C” bike rack in his honor.

“Thank you for always putting your students first and making each and every one of us feel special and heard,” said Liimatta. “While we are all sad to see you go and leave this year, we understand that you felt it was the only option, as there would never be another graduating class as amazing as the Class of 2023.”

Superintendent Jim Roberts also honored Newell in his remarks.

Like Smith, he noted that each graduate’s life will look different. However, he advised all of them to, in the words of Tim McGraw, “stay humble and kind” even as they succeed.

“Thank you, Mr. Newell, for modeling that for us by always staying humble and kind,” said Roberts.

“It’s been my privilege to serve as your principal for the past four years,” Newell told students. “And I will leave with the fact that you will always be an Olympian, and to take care and carry on, O’s.”