WORTON – Don’t be afraid … to change … to stick your neck out … to fail. That was the message that Ira Smith, a 1985 graduate of Kent County High School, delivered Saturday morning to the Class of 2009 at his alma mater.

A former collegiate batting champ who spent 14 years in professional baseball, Smith, now 41 and an athletic director in California, talked a lot about failure, about how failure is essentially a prerequisite for success.

 He found plenty of examples in his own life.

“Dude” Smith grew up in the villages of Edesville and Gray’s Inn, near Rock Hall, and was already gaining acclaim for his baseball prowess before he entered high school.

Wearing the Blue and Gold of KCHS, Smith was a triple-threat in football, basketball and baseball, and the outstanding male athlete in his graduating class. Early success followed at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, where he decided to focus solely on baseball.

At UMES, Smith, who was selected the school’s outstanding freshman athlete, was tearing the cover off the baseball, but did not touch a book cover. The star on the field was failing miserably in the classroom. And soon, he was academically ineligible.

“I had two choices,” Smith told the 163 fresh-scrubbed teenagers sitting in the front rows of the high school gymnasium. “I could get my academic act together so I could get back on the baseball field, or I could quit, stop wasting others’ time and breaking my mother’s heart.”

He chose the former, and the rest makes for good copy.

Smith led the nation in batting as a junior and again as a senior, and ended his career with the Division I Hawks with an average of .467.

But what he is most proud of is how he finished in the classroom. He was a Dean’s List student in five of his last six semesters, sporting a grade point average of 3.2 or better.

He graduated in 1990 with a bachelor’s degree in physical education.

“Failure is there to bring you wisdom,” Smith told the graduates. “Failure should not be an issue. … Regret lies not in doing, but in not doing. You don’t want your résumé to say ‘I didn’t succeed in life because I was afraid I’d fail.’ … Success is around the corner.”

Smith encouraged the graduates to be like a turtle, which in order to move forward must stick out its neck. Don’t draw into your shell and hide from challenges, face them head on.

He also noted that commencement is a beginning. “You have completed high school and are starting new,” said Smith. “Open your arms wide and embrace being a beginner. … Just grow. Work on becoming a better you, for you and those you love.”

Each of his 14 seasons in professional baseball was a new beginning, a new challenge, said Smith, who was drafted by the Dodgers in 1990 and also played in the Padres and Tigers organizations. Each season, he said, was an opportunity to become a better baseball player and ultimately a better person.

Smith spoke for about 30 minutes, detouring from the script when he underscored the importance of family and home and the lifetime friendships that started at Kent County High School.

He spoke proudly of his love for KCHS, and how being the keynote speaker at his alma mater was the greatest honor he had ever received.

After all these years, Smith remains fiercely loyal to Kent and still regards border rival Queen Anne’s as “the enemy,” as recounted in a humorous anecdote about his wife’s attempt to dress him in green – Queen Anne’s school color – for Saturday’s graduation ceremony.

And, he poignantly saluted the courage of nephew Deontre Lamar Scott, a member of the Class of 2009 who is wheelchair-bound and depends on others for his daily care. Smith said he drew inspiration from his nephew, whose challenges are greater than most of us can imagine.

And with that, Scott’s classmates rose to their feet. Next stood the teachers and school staff, and the mothers and fathers and other family members in the audience. Eventually, everyone in the jam-packed gymnasium was on their feet and clapping for ’Tre Scott.

Smith congratulated the graduating seniors, whom he affectionately dubbed as his newfound “home boys” and “home girls.”

He also applauded the parents, for they too “have been educated in this process and have walked every step of the way with you.”

Ashley Nabb, senior class president and National Honor Society president, served as mistress of ceremonies. As the first order of business, she recognized Roy Taylor White for 13 years of perfect attendance.

Anna Ashley, class vice president, welcomed everyone to commencement for the “bright, good-looking and outstanding Class of 2009.”

Acting Principal Tracey Coleman Williams, who graduated from Kent 23 years ago, portrayed the Class of 2009 as fun loving and goal oriented.

Williams noted that the graduation ceremony saluted the successes of the students as well as their parents and guardians. She thanked her own parents – who were in the audience – and the staff and administrators, county commissioners and school board members for their commitment to education.

It takes a collective effort from community and family to nurture and guide today’s youth, said Williams. She ended her remarks by quoting children’s author Dr. Seuss.

“Today is your day. You’re off to great places. You’re off and away.

“ … You’ll get mixed up, of course, as you already know. You’ll get mixed up with many strange birds as you go. So be sure when you step. Step with care and great tact, and remember that life’s a great balancing act. Just never forget to be dexterous and deft. And never mix up your right foot with your left.

“And will you succeed? Yes! You will, indeed, 98 and ¾ percent guaranteed.

“… Today is your day. Your mountain is waiting. So, get on your way!”

Superintendent Barbara Wheeler, speaking at her first KCHS commencement, told the graduates that their presence “is a testament to perseverance and the understanding that without an education your struggles will be many.”

Like “Dude” Smith, Wheeler noted that commencement is a beginning to a lifelong journey that will require members of the Class of 2009 to embrace change.

They are leaving the world of childhood and entering the world of young adulthood, and much will be expected of them as the next generation of doctors, teachers, farmers, engineers, and community leaders.

“This is your moment,” said Wheeler. “You’ve made it to the big league, and you’re up to bat. … Each of you can make this a better place. Each of you has the potential to change the world.”

After that, Nabb, Grace Bourne, Winona Janega and Sarah Evans spoke to their classmates.

Nabb recalled fondly the last four years, proms and pep rallies, varsity football games and homecomings, and senior pranks.

“It’s now time to move on and start our lives as adults,” she said. It is an exciting time, she said, but also one of worry and uneasiness as “this is the only life we’ve known.”

Bourne, president of the school’s Student Government Association, spoke about how failure spawns success.

“Let’s not be afraid to fail, for we are not invincible. Let’s not be afraid to ask for help, for we will need advice. Instead, be afraid of not trying, of not doing your best, because that is ultimately the greatest failure,” she said. “There will be ups and there will be downs, but it is how we tackle the challenges that define not only our character, but also our achievements. Let’s leave this graduation ceremony eager to try new things and ready to expand our horizons, for it is only then that we will grow.”

Janega, the class salutatorian, was able to poke fun at her own shyness and discomfort in public speaking. She was short and to the point, extending a general thank you to all who had helped along the way.

“Much as I’d like to thank individual people, I do believe it’s time for me to feel one of the biggest reliefs of my life, for this speech of mine is now over,” she said.

Janega and valedictorian Evans noted some of the challenges for the Class of 2009 – from the school building’s extreme makeover during their freshman year, to their being the first class required to pass the High School Assessments in order to graduate, to adjusting to changes in leadership, i.e., four principals and three athletic directors over the last four years.

High school is a lot like a roller coaster ride, said Evans. There are ups and downs, and sometimes you feel sick to your stomach.

She said she could not have survived this “crazy ride” without the support of her parents, family, friends, class advisors and teachers.

But the last four years have really only been waiting in line. The real adventure is about to begin.

“Enjoy the ride,” said Evans.

Michael Harvey, president of the board of education, presented the diplomas. As each graduate crossed the stage, he or she received a hearty handshake from platform guests that included Wheeler, Assistant Principals Mike Iseman and John Schrecongost, and school board members Sarah Brown, Allan Hanifee and Bryan Williams.

There was a lot of applause and cheering, and for Ralph James Peck a standing ovation from his classmates. Peck was critically injured in a motor vehicle crash in May. His head still heavily bandaged, Peck processed in a wheelchair; but he walked across the stage to receive his diploma, stopping to embrace Iseman and Schrecongost.

Saturday’s commencement was the 38th for KCHS. Class advisors were Stephanie Gerhold and Ida Nabb.

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