The Class of '88 has graduated, but there won't be a Class of '89. South High is gone.
Like all graduations, South's commencement Wednesday night was a bittersweet affair. The usual tears brought by good memories and the cheers signaling the end to years of public education were played out against the knowledge that this graduation was the end for both the students and the school.South's commencement closed the school's doors after 57 years and reduced the city's high schools from four to three. The Salt Lake Board of Education voted to close South because of dwindling enrollment and the flight out of South to east-side schools.
In many ways, South's last graduation was typical, with girls fussing to keep both pesky caps and hair in order, dads rushing out of their seats to snap photos as their teens walked across the stage for their diplomas and a tired little one or two wailing with boredom until moms took them out.
But the fact that it was South's finale could not be ignored. Emotions were always close to the surface for the graduates and the audience during the two-hour ceremony.
Speakers stumbled over words, their voices breaking, as they described their feelings for the school. Male and female graduates hugged Principal LaVar Sorensen, a man they affectionately call "Doc," after receiving their diplomas, while Polynesian students, who comprised a large contingent in the culturally diverse school, loaded him down with leis. Tears and mascara streamed down faces as "On South High" was sung for the last time.
Sorensen recognized each teacher individually. Dressed in caps and gowns, the teachers, some of them crying, walked across the stage for one last time. Many of the women kissed Sorensen.
Saying goodbye to her classmates and urging them to cherish high school memories, student body president Kim Hall added: "As the last student body president, I say `farewell' to South High."
"Forever South High," shouted senior class officer Layne Hilton to cheers and whistles after he read the list of graduating seniors.
G. Larry Failner, South High Community Council chairman, referred to the loyalty, unity and dignity of the South students during the turmoil surrounding their school's closure. South students "taught Salt Lake City and even this nation a lesson in integrity and character that will never be forgotten," Failner said.
"It is my opinion that everyone in this state and surrounding states knows that in Salt Lake City there is a South High School," said the principal, who has directed South for 13 years.
He praised parents and faculty and then recognized the 200 members of the Class of '88 for their loyalty, unity and restraint during the closure controversy.
Sorensen said, "You displayed your true colors in a very appropriate manner. I'm not sure other schools could have dealt with the decision as effectively as you."
His voice trembling with emotion, Sorensen, who is retiring after 38 years in public education, called his work at South "the most rewarding assignment of my professional life."
School board president F. Keith Stepan accepted the graduating class but not before he, too, lavished praise. He said the Class of '88, South's last class, could be considered representative of the more than 31,000 who are the school's alumni.
The loving unity of South's students has been an example to the community throughout the last two years. "As you have helped each other, you have helped all of us," Stepan said.
He expressed appreciation for the teachers and for Sorensen. "We at the school district honor him as having the best voice, the surest direction in times that have not been stable," Stepan said. Sorensen was visibly moved by the tribute.
Like some graduates, South's future is uncertain. Salt Lake Community College wants the building for a downtown campus. Negotiations between the state and school district have been going on for months.
Monday it was announced that the school board had voted "yes" on the sale, but later board members said that information was inaccurate and no official agreement had been reached.
Stepan hinted that the agreement is actually in the works when he talked about the dignity of the old school. "We are anxious for it to begin a new role in education," he said.
If that happens, the state plans to begin renovation soon so the college can admit students in 1989-90.
Whatever the building's fate, the real South High School won't change. From the Class of '31 to the Class of '88, South High lives in memories.