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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Zerkel, NPHS seniors bond with beads, deeds

Monday, June 6, 2011

ROACHDALE -- Knowing his students from A to Z is special to North Putnam High School's Alan Zerkel perhaps because his own initials are A.Z.

He's sensitive no doubt to the old axiom "the last (especially alphabetically) shall be first." But more likely it's because he cares about them and wants to show it.

Principal Alan Zerkel up to his neck in beads. [Order this photo]
Not only does Zerkel know the members of the senior class well, but well enough to address each and every one of the 112 graduating seniors by first name during his presentation of the class at Saturday's commencement ceremonies.

The longtime NPHS principal shared his special bond with the Class of 2011 with the audience, taking time to tell a little story or tidbit about each pupil and his or her future plans.

Zerkel grouped some together, like the eight or so whom he proudly announced will seek a future career in nursing, and aimed at others individually with good-natured jabs.

For example, one of the students heading off to join the armed forces was playfully advised to consider a role that "doesn't involve carrying a weapon -- something like the Marine Corps Band," Zerkel said. Meanwhile, Zerkel reminded another that the last time the principal checked, they still expect you to follow orders in the military.

It was almost a parental pride showing when he turned to salute Valedictorian Megan Robinson as the county's 2011 Lilly Scholar or in talking with Tasha in the front row about a long-ago Spanish class debate.

He predicted his North Putnam's IT interns would one day run the department and that a couple of working seniors seem destined to own their own business in the future. He applauded countless others for their choices of college and career.

Kind, caring, insightful remarks about 112 seniors -- an ongoing tradition that Zerkel realized last year he had to trim down to keep the ceremony moving along and the audience from moving in their seats.

And the students, as they often do on graduation day, got their own playful revenge. Many of them came armed with Mardi Gras beads, gaudy necklaces of some kind or even, as Chelsea Hilburn so beautifully improvised, a purple boa.

It was difficult to tell whether Zerkel got more beads than hugs or vice versa. Nonetheless, it was quite obvious that the students wanted to ring his neck, not wring his neck.

As the parade of caps and gowns ran down, Jeffrey Brock Wehrman carefully maneuvered across the stage on crutches. Receiving his diploma from North Putnam Superintendent Mary Lovejoy, he clutched it between clenched teeth so he could pull a string of beads from his pocket and zero in on Zerkel.

The principal, seeing the student's predicament, grabbed Wehrman's diploma and held it in his own teeth so that the senior might add his beads to the collection around Zerkel's neck.

After the last senior in line, Justin Alan Zurawski, got a diploma and a couple handshakes, Zerkel quickly adjourned to his office to sign the real diplomas that were passed out in the hallway post-ceremony. The signing wasn't easy.

"I can't get these off," he said of the bulging beads around his neck. He begged his wife of 39 years, Mary Kathryn, to help. To cut them off if need be.

She agreed, but not before grabbing her cell phone to snap a couple photos to email to daughters Abby and Amanda (there's those A.Z. initials again).

Others passing by or coming in or out of the office quickly pulled out phones or digital cameras to record the beading for posterity.

How the beads idea came to pass Zerkel was unsure. Of course, someone else in the office was quick say, "I know how you get them at Mardi Gras, what did you do?"

If you can keep your shirt on, there's more. One year the seniors tried to give the principal pennies, but most of those fell to the floor during the congratulatory on-stage handshake. Another year he got ping-pong balls that were signed or carried brief messages of thanks. He has kept those.

Regardless, it was all in good fun Saturday, offering further proof that commencement really is about the beginning and the end.

Just like a string of beads.

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It was a very nice Graduation this year not to long, and yes Mr Zerkel may know the names of each senior from a piece of paper in front of him, But it was clear who are the favorites at the school, sad to say but true! I hope each Senior achives their dreams ! Good luck to the graduating class of 2011 !

-- Posted by NPmom66 on Mon, Jun 6, 2011, at 6:52 AM

I attended the graduation and did not believe that Mr. Zerkel was unfair to anyone in his tribute to the students. Yes, you may have believed that your child did not get as much said about him or her but is that his fault or theirs. If they did not do sports or excel in the classroom or take part in any extra activities like plays, music or such, then he would not have had much to say.

There is no need to blame him, he did very well and never said a bad word about any of them. I was proud about what he said about my loved one, and no he did not say much about him or her but what he said was great.

-- Posted by goodthoughts on Mon, Jun 6, 2011, at 7:15 AM

This tradition has been going on for many years. He did not just start it last year. In the 90's he also gave each senior a personal comment. Congratulations Class of 2011. Good luck with your future endeavors.

-- Posted by teach4ever on Mon, Jun 6, 2011, at 8:05 AM
Response by Eric Bernsee:
Thanks. You are correct. One reason I wanted to do this story in the first place was because of the nice comments I had heard from those attending NPHS commencements in the past. Unfortunately, in re-editing a couple of paragraphs late Sunday night, I misplaced the "last year" reference. Thanks again.

To Goodthoughts, It was not my child that I was concerned about, This was not my first Graduation at NP neither will it be my last, My son did excel in school, however he only received a small mention, I was more concerned about some other Seniors that deserved to be mentioned due to not missing any school, helping out at school,Never being in trouble, that was my thoughts. It was a great Graduation and Mr Zerkel did well, but at the same time not only NP but all the school do have favorites and it shows.

-- Posted by NPmom66 on Mon, Jun 6, 2011, at 12:29 PM

As a parent from this year Graduating Class I thought the ceremony was wonderful - sure it was a little hot but everything else was great- it was wonderful to see the personal touch of Mr Kurkel addressing all the graduates by name - coming from a big city school of 778 graduates many many many years ago I loved that the most- Best of luck to all the Graduates from NPHS and thanks so much to the entire staff at NPHS for your success with the students from this class the last 4 years!

-- Posted by makuh60 on Mon, Jun 6, 2011, at 12:41 PM

Very nice ceremony.

-- Posted by floyd'srangerriders on Mon, Jun 6, 2011, at 1:08 PM

I have never been to a school that did this, and was astonished that he would take the time to make it more personal for the graduates. You don't find that in larger cities, but with having a graduating class of 435, that was not possible. I admire Mr. Zerkel's continuation of the tradition, and must give kudos to Mr. Bernsee for covering it in such a heartfelt manner. Nice job to all.

-- Posted by teachingforourfuture on Mon, Jun 6, 2011, at 2:00 PM

Mr. Zerkel has been a great individual at NPHS. Being able to name off every student and know at least one thing about them is amazing. I know I appreciated it during my graduation.

Now, don't forget the NP Class of 2003 when each person handed him a fork that had been collected from the cafeteria over the year.

Congrats to the Class of 2011!

-- Posted by Treeboy2007 on Tue, Jun 7, 2011, at 8:06 PM

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