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John Carroll's 50th graduating class known for 'unconventional' and 'out-of-the-box' style

The salutatorian and valedictorian of The John Carroll School's Class of 2017, the Bel Air private school's 50th graduating class, both described their class as unconventional during commencement exercises Saturday morning.

"We're not, nor have we ever really been, a conventional class," valedictorian Ianna Pirrozi said.

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The commencement ceremony, which took place on the football field of Gerry Gray Stadium, was also a time for Richard O'Hara, the outgoing school president and interim principal, to give some final thoughts to the graduates. O'Hara, who is retiring, led the school for 10 years.

Pirrozi said her class had an "unruly moniker," and she recalled they were even removed from "our own pep rally."

Despite such actions, "when we wanted to get something done, we came together."

"We took complete pride in who we are and this unwavering sense of self helped us to define our mark on JC's history," she said.

Salutatorian Nicholas Hinke noted his classmates' efforts "to get away from the social norm" and to "live their lives outside of the box."

"Whatever you find yourself doing in your life, never let this box keep you from being you, because each of us has our own story to share," he said.

The Class of 2017 has not lacked for accomplishments — Pirozzi described the multiple athletic, academic and artistic achievements of her classmates.

"As a class we could not claim any accomplishments at the start of freshman year, but since then, they have become numerous," she said.

Priozzi urged her classmates, "once you find your passion, whatever it is, keep doing it. Don't make the next four years a numerical countdown, but rather an increasing account of accomplishments."

O'Hara said 99 percent of the 160-member class will attend college, with the remainder taking time off for activities such as serving abroad in Vietnam or attending trade school.

He said 84 of the graduates have reported earning $16.8 million in scholarships, and the class has completed a combined 18,800 community service hours.

He encouraged the graduates to think of former President John F. Kennedy — who was assassinated in 1963 and would have turned 100 years old Monday — and his "youthful idealism and his call for a higher vision for our nation and for each of us as citizens."

"All we can ask, and we do ask this of you today, is that somewhere along the path of this next part of your journey, you do think big ... contemplating your place in the world, and reflecting on how you want to genuinely make a difference, and how you want to be remembered," O'Hara said.

O'Hara also introduced Michael Romanelli, the commencement speaker and this year's recipient of the Rev. Charles K. Riepe Award. The award is named for the school's first president and is the highest honor given to a John Carroll alumnus.

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Romanelli, who lives in Rancho Mirage, Calif., graduated in 1971. He has spent 45 years working with children and adults with special needs in schools and as a private consultant.

O'Hara said Romanelli exemplifies the qualities John Carroll officials would like to see in all of its graduates.

"They are a strong sense of self, the capacity to achieve your personal and professional aspirations, a global perspective and a moral compass to serve as a guide," O'Hara said.

Romanelli said his career was inspired by his time as a John Carroll student, when he volunteered to work with special-needs children who visited the school.

He acknowledged that he originally participated because volunteers could be excused from physical education class.

That put him on "the cutting edge," however, of the start of a national movement to get people with special needs out of institutions and back into their communities.

"The children were filled with energy and unconditional love," Romanelli said. "They smiled and laughed and were grateful for any attention we gave them."

He told the graduates to "turn to God" when making decisions about their lives, noting that "He speaks in a quiet voice, and he brings you peace and calm."

Graduate Avery Jones, 17, of Joppa, has decided on the next year of his life. He plans to attend Mercersburg Academy, a college prep boarding school in Pennsylvania, before he begins playing college football.

Avery was a wide receiver for the Patriots football team.

"I'm just really excited to get into the next year and experience the new environment, but I am going to miss all the memories [of John Carroll]," he said after the ceremony.

Avery spent his junior and senior years at John Carroll, having spent his freshman and sophomore years four miles away at Harford Tech in Bel Air.

He recalled talking with O'Hara after football games.

"He really brought to my attention what he sees in me on the field, my dedication and passion for the game," Avery said. "He's just always been a good motivator."

Parting thoughts

O'Hara said in an email later Saturday that the experience of his final John Carroll commencement was "nostalgic, but really I had the same feelings that I've had at every John Carroll commencement: great pride in the school, admiration for the work that my faculty and staff colleagues do and a feeling of confidence that the school has done its part to help shape students who will do well but also do much good in life."

"I felt extra grateful today for the opportunity I've had to serve in this school community the past ten years," he continued.

O'Hara said he plans a "semi-retirement," which could involve working with youths who need financial support or mentoring, through a foundation or other non-profit entity.

"If the next John Carroll president is okay with the idea of me showing up once in a while, I will look forward to staying connected with the school and so many great people I have met over the years," O'Hara wrote. "I'll be 'on call' through September during the transition to new leadership."

"I'd also like to become more involved in serving the homeless and immigrant populations in the Baltimore area," he said. "Consulting to schools might be another option in time."

O'Hara said "the immediate plan is to sell our house, downsize and get ready to be a grandfather in August."

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