Back in the 1980s, The Columbian sent a reporter and photographer to cover every local high school commencement ceremony. As a freelance writer at the time, I picked up quite a few of these assignments. As I recall, they were pretty routine: Write a few sentences about what the speakers said, name the honorees, and include the number of graduates.
That was before the advent of Skyview, Union, Heritage and a bunch of other local high schools. If we covered all of the commencements nowadays, we would have to go to 34 ceremonies.
Instead, we try to acknowledge our high school seniors with a Sunday cover story and a Monday list of all of the different high school ceremonies, plus the names of the valedictorian, the salutatorian and the top 5 percent of the graduates, if applicable. That’s most of what we used to include in those commencement stories anyway.
The easiest thing to do would be to find five of the biggest bookworms in Clark County and write about their college plans. And we have done that. But for at least the last 15 years, we have tried to pick a theme and then solicit nominations of interesting seniors to profile.
This year’s effort began with an April 26 meeting involving our metro team reporters, our photo editor and representatives from the copy desk. What should be the theme? Last year, we told the story of students with diverse backgrounds. In 2017, fresh off the 2016 elections, our theme was student advocacy.
As we sat around tossing out ideas, we hit upon the theme of high school heroes. The more we talked about it, the more we liked the idea. It even played off the movie “Avengers: Endgame,” which opened that day — and which we knew would be immensely popular with high school students.
Reporters Katie Gillespie and Adam Littman went on the hunt for heroes, contacting local schools and asking for nominees. We got a good response, and we were soon able to find five students to profile and photograph, which is just the right number to fill a printed newspaper page, assuming you write no more than a dozen paragraphs about each. We tried to choose a representative sample, picking kids who were heroes for different reasons, and from different high schools.
The visuals were a big challenge: Could we make an illustration featuring our “Superheroes in the Halls” in the style of a movie poster? Photo Editor Amanda Cowan and News Editor Merridee Hanson were game to try.
Amanda brought our staff photographers into the studio as models and made some test shots using different lighting techniques and poses. She then gave the photos to Merridee, who mocked up a cover. Because we had five high school heroes but only two models, Merridee grabbed a couple of file photos, including one of Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle, to use as additional heroes.
By this time we could see that the concept would work, so we asked the real heroes to come to our studio and pose. Each also brought a prop to be used for their standalone portrait to run with their profile. Merridee used Adobe Photoshop to stitch the stylized portraits together, added some galactic file art as background, and I have to say, it looked amazing!
Meanwhile, News Assistant Lyndsey Hewitt was in contact with each of the 34 high schools gathering facts for our roundup of all the ceremonies. This year, we gave Lyndsey an additional task: Ask every high school for a hero that we can use as our Monday front-page centerpiece. This list ended up like one of those “news from every state” pages that you see in USA Today. Although a few schools didn’t participate, it allowed us to tell 18 more stories of some outstanding seniors.
Congratulations to the Class of 2019, and also to all of our Columbian journalists who made this project a success.