MANNHEIM, Germany-- Forty-two seniors sat on stage in the Rosengarten Saturday night as the final graduating class of Mannheim American High School.

Next year, their school mates in the under classes will attend Heidelberg High School whose seniors graduated June 9 at the Kongresshaus Stadthalle in Heidelberg.

In both places, the majestic settings of the grand German buildings added to the importance of the occasion.

“This is a day of celebration and joy,” said Mannheim High School Principal Shelia Smith who focused on the graduates’ achievements and not on the closing of the school on Benjamin Franklin Village after 55 years of serving the children of military members and Department of Defense civilians.

Heidelberg senior Aaron Steffen said, “I am both nervous and excited,” and it was clear this was the case for all seniors, whether their smiles beamed beneath royal blue or regal purple graduation caps as the classes of 2011 proceeded to their seats to the tune of “Pomp and Circumstance.”

Seniors and their families listened as advice flowed.

“Remember, the latest fashion at the mall will be handed over to good will in only a few short months, but the investment in yourselves will last a lifetime,” said Patricia Schlachter, social studies teacher and the keynote speaker for Mannheim.

“Be an artist … the art of laughter” is the most creative expression of joy and “just because you can be mean doesn’t mean you should be,” said Mannheim valedictorian Alexis Pineiro.
Heidelberg Senior Class President Zachery Richards stressed that graduation was a “transition in life, not the pinnacle.”

Lt. Gen. Mark P. Hertling recommended Heidelberg’s senior students to “say ‘thanks’ a lot … follow your heart, but take responsibility,” and, “Do one thing every day that scares you.”

Heidelberg co-salutatorians Marilyn Bowen and Kristina Meeker spoke of overcoming challenges with Bowen highlighting that “unity within diversity” is something prevalent and unique in Heidelberg and that the high school has allowed them to gain a “wider perspective we can use to our advantage” in the world.

Heidelberg valedictorian Kevin Burdge spoke of world poverty and entitlement, stating that only one in every 100 people have the chance to go to college. As such, everyone at Heidelberg has the “opportunity to affect the people around you,” he said.

“Your high school opened in 1956. With you, the school’s history comes to an end 55 years later, with your class of 2011. That reality affected each of you differently and will help mold you in the future,” U.S. Army Garrison Baden-Württemberg Commander Col. Bill Butcher told Mannheim graduates.

“Don’t take anything for granted. Cherish the little things. And never forget where you came from,” concluded Mannheim Salutatorian Adam Cornelius.

For the 133 Heidelberg and the 42 Mannheim graduates, the evening had special touches. Each Mannheim senior personally thanked families and teachers in a video presentation. In Heidelberg, a traditional pyrotechnic display lit the room for graduates who then took a celebratory boat ride on the Neckar River.

NOTE: Iben Merrild contributed to this report.