At the Federated Insurance building on the south end of town Sunday, Owatonna High School staff and students addressed hundreds of cars from a stage at the front of the parking lot.
Their words were then broadcast over an audio system and through car radios for fellow graduates and families, listening in from their vehicles. Despite a blustery day, warming as the afternoon wore on, the ceremony started promptly at 2 p.m. and — at least from the stage — went off without a visible hitch.
Cars were stretched out in stalls as far as the eye could see, and due to the heat, most with windows up listening from the stereo. Horns were honked for the student speakers and again as Assistant Principals Hollie Jeska and Philip Wiken read the names of the 337 graduates. Some cars were decked out with window paint and balloons, one student even arrived via limousine.
The ceremony’s three student speakers — Joseph Brueggemeier, Hamdia Idow and Elise Sande — were positioned in chairs just off to the side of the stage, while district administrators, staff and school board members were seated atop in full regalia. Earlier in the day, select high school staff had also been on hand in their robes at the Foundation building on the Steele County Fairgrounds.
From 9 a.m. to noon, seniors were able to drive through the building in their cars, stop at one of four photo set-ups and get their picture taken with their diploma cover. Honored teachers, selected in part by the student body, presented the diploma covers and congratulated students ahead of the photo shoot.
“The students selected the teachers that were going to represent them at the commencement ceremony,” said Owatonna High School Principal Kory Kath. “They had a vote where they nominated teachers that they wanted to see, then we pulled the ones that had the most nominations and we tried to target our retiring teachers as well.”
Cars came through the building in two side-by-side lines, pulling in two at a time through either doorway to a near and far photo set-up. Students hopped out in their cap and gown when the car was in place, posed against a professional backdrop, then got right back in and drove away to prepare for the afternoon component.
At the end of the day on Sunday, after it was finally dark enough outside on one of the longest days of the year, the school lit up its exterior for 20 minutes starting at 9:30 p.m. — making an end to what, due to the need for social distancing, had evolved from a short ceremony to a day of celebration.