NORTH SALEM, N.Y. - High school graduation is a precious moment in time that, like other milestones in life, only comes around once.

While yearbooks and cap-and-gown photos will likely be safely tucked away in drawers or the cloud, other important ephemera could eventually be lost to history. After all, one person’s pomp-and-circumstance memorabilia is not necessarily another’s artifact.

North Salem High School found itself on the public’s radar after announcing plans to hold commencement ceremonies on June 22 for its 103 seniors at the Four Brothers Drive-in, an outdoor movie theater in the tiny Dutchess County town of Amenia.

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A bold move in light of the many logistical hurdles posed by the coronavirus social distancing guidelines, the plans have also grabbed the attention of folks at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., the world’s largest museum and research complex.

Principal Vince DiGrandi was recently contacted by curator Debbie Schaefer-Jacobs, who told him that the institution’s National Museum of American History was “lining up potential future donations documenting the schools during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Besides the usual videos, photos and commencement announcements, the museum eventually wants the 6-foot-long mechanical arm North Salem plans to use to safely hand over the diplomas to grads as they sit in their cars.

DiGrandi has asked that an extra device be made so the district can keep it for its own archives.

The arm was designed and made by Ron Hendrie, a technology and engineering teacher, and his students.

The grads are planning to decorate their cars. Prerecorded speeches will be shown on the drive-in’s 56-foot-wide screen in high def. And the kids and parents will be treated to a movie and pizza afterwards.

North Salem also plans to give the Smithsonian one of the graduation invites—which looks like an old-fashioned movie theater ticket—and the “big reveal” video of a skit by Gina Kappes and Kristin Doherty.

The student advisers, dressed up in ‘50’s garb, stood in front of the theater’s funky outdoor box office to belt out “Stranded at the Drive-In” from the musical “Grease.” They said they wanted to do “something special” for the students and told them they were “so proud of the positive attitude you have shown throughout this pandemic.”

They added that they were “honored” to have been their advisers and missed them all “so very much.”
DiGrandi was beyond excited when he announced the graduation plans last month.

“I can’t even put sentences together, this is how big this is,” he said, adding, “There was Armstrong landing on the moon, then there’s this.”

North Salem was the first in Halston Media’s coverage area to announce graduation plans. Since then, Somers, Bedford and Katonah-Lewisboro have banded together to hold separate commencement exercises in the Jefferson Valley Mall’s parking lot in Yorktown.

When asked about the possibility of North Salem’s celebration officially becoming part of the national narrative, DiGrandi acknowledged that it’s a long road from being solicited for material donations and actually being part of a collection or exhibit.

Schaefer-Jacobs said the Smithsonian is currently under the District of Columbia’s stay-at-home orders and its museums and offices are all closed so it is not physically collecting the desired objects, or doing the actual paperwork, until it is back on track.

However, it is contacting potential donors now so items can be “set aside and not lost or thrown away,” Schaefer-Jacobs said.
Each of the Smithsonian’s collections has its own focus. The American History contingent is taking a broad approach. Its COVID-19 task force is seeking everything from handwritten grocery lists to letters from patients. Masks, gloves, test kits and ventilators will also be collected, but only when no longer needed during the pandemic.

According to Alexandra Lord, chair of the American History Museum’s Medicine and Science Division, it does not want to “put pressure on supplies.”

It’s the “human impact” of the story the Smithsonian is trying to keep from getting lost, said Melanie Adams, the director of the Anacostia Community Museum, one of 20 museums under the Smithsonian’s umbrella. The Anacostia explores local social change.

To North Salem Superintendent Dr. Ken Freeston, any attention from an institution as venerable as the Smithsonian is simply “awesome.”

Whether or not North Salem’s modern-day relics end up in the digital collection for researchers to peruse or in an actual exhibit, just being asked is “an honor,” DiGrandi said.

But more importantly—in the proud principal’s eyes—it’s a “silver lining” in an otherwise sad cloud of a situation.

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