ROCKINGHAM — The final tally of 2015 Richmond Senior High School graduates receiving diplomas Friday rose from a projected 437 to 442 as hundreds of seniors converged to walk the track in the procession of a lifetime.
Seniors, junior marshals and members of the band began entering Raider Stadium as early as 5:45 p.m. in preparation for the 8 p.m. ceremony while Richmond County sheriff’s deputies directed traffic through a carefully constructed maze of orange cones and parking spaces.
By 7 p.m., cars continued to pour into the parking lot from the stadium entrance all the way back to lots behind the school’s cafeteria, more than a few of their occupants carrying umbrellas to shade themselves from the blistering sun in 93-degree heat.
David Burr stood beside a white SUV already looking dapper in his green cap and gown with a white, button-down shirt. Like many of the graduating class, he has clear goals for his future.
“I’m planning to go two years in college at RCC, then enter the Air Force or Marines,” Burr said.
Erran Greene, who soaked up a hefty scholarship at the athletic awards banquet, stood tall and seemed undisturbed by the hot weather while chatting with friends.
“I’m going to be attending Methodist College in the fall,” Greene said. “I got a $35,000 scholarship for track and football.”
Asked who he most looked up to during his time in school, Greene didn’t hesitate to name his brother.
“That would be Trent Greene,” he said. “I just have to out-do everything he does.”
Green’s friend Willis Riggins said he plans to attend Fayetteville State and major in music.
As friends, relatives and other loved-ones filed into the stadium, the seats filled rapidly and the chatter level began to rise above the soft piano music broadcast across the field. The $1 bottles of water offered for sale at the gate disappeared just as quickly.
Gabrielle Eaton, a junior marshal looking pristine in her gown of white, said being there in that role was an eye-opener.
“It seems a lot more sudden than it was before,” Eaton said. “Because here I am thinking next year it’s going to be me walking the track.”
Eaton intends to become an oncologist.
“Mainly because of family experience,” she said. “My grandmother passed away last year. As for finding a cure for cancer, I’m going to try.”
Fellow junior marshal Montana Kelley hasn’t decided what she will do after her graduation next year.
“I’ve been working hard for this, to be a junior marshal, since ninth grade,” Kelley said. “I just thank God for that. My heart is leaning toward studying dentistry, but I might go into physical therapy. I just haven’t decided for sure yet.”
Jonathan Alberto Hernandez had hoped to use his crutches to make the walk, but the popular cancer survivor had complications that caused him to make the ride in his wheelchair. After graduation, he said he plans to rest for a while before enrolling in college courses. His dream is to graduate Harvard Medical School so he can help others to fight the disease he has fought.
The graduating class was so large that it took three walks around the track to get everyone out of the gates. Many ticket-holders were left without a place to sit and forced to try their luck on the grassy hillside near the scoreboard. Those less fortunate wandered outside the stadium area, their view completely blocked.
“We’re having to stand down here,” said Peggy Brigman. “There are a lot of people who didn’t even get in to stand, but at least we’re here. I really hope Denny and Anne (McLaurin) found seats.”
The McLaurins and Brigmans are grandparents of graduate Tori Brigman, who summed up the even with the most commonly heard words at the stadium.
“It’s really hot out here.”
Reach reporter Melonie McLaurin at 910-817-2673 and follow her on Twitter.