Bush's visit thrills graduates of night school


SEAFORD, Del. -- The last lesson Victoria L. Eastburn learned in high school was "what a president of the United States can do for somebody" when he attends their graduation exercises as George Bush did here yesterday:

* He can turn valedictorians like Ms. Eastburn and classmate William T. Gibbs into local celebrities with days of attention from radio, television and newspaper reporters eager for angles on a presidential visit.

* He can mention the two in his commencement speech, citing them as examples of how "family, faith and determination" can help high school dropouts overcome years of obstacles and mountains of hardship to obtain their degrees in night school.

* He can signal Ms. Eastburn an encouraging thumbs-up after she completes her own nervously delivered remarks, an emotional tale of dog-tired days and a dirty house as she balanced a full-time job, a husband and two children against the strains of a 16-year hiatus from the classroom.

* And he can whisper in her ear as she greets him on stage after collecting her diploma, "You did a good job, give me a hug, give me a kiss."

In others words, said Ms. Eastburn, 31, of nearby Millsboro, "I'v become a special person because he's here. It's the most exciting thing that's ever happened in my life."

Mr. Bush was clearly touched by her, too, as evidenced by the special winks and gestures accorded none of six dozen other graduates of the Sussex County James H. Groves Adult High School.

He seemed surprised to encounter the living proof of his exhortations that it's never too late to learn and always worth the effort.

"This diploma tells the world of your self-discipline and drive, and it testifies more eloquently than anyone ever can to the power of your will and your dreams," the president told the graduates, then departed from his text to express his sense of pride at being a part of the event.

Yesterday's commencement in the Seaford High School auditorium was much smaller, homier and more personal than the half-dozen or so other graduation exercises Mr. Bush has attended this spring, mostly at the service academies and large college campuses.

It was the first time tiny Seaford has seen a U.S. president since Benjamin Harrison was rumored to have passed through on a train more than a century ago -- and it's not even certain that he got off and looked around.

No president has even been to southern Delaware since Warren G. Harding's visit to neighboring Milford in the 1920s, according to old-timers here.

Even so, Seaford was hospitable but not awed.

Besides the gush of advance publicity for Mr. Bush, loca businesses put welcome signs on their marquees and a crowd of several hundred sang "Happy Birthday" as the president's helicopter landed on the high school ballfield. He turned 67 today.

As always with presidential visits, residents had to endure the inconvenience of his tight security. Family and friends of the graduates were allocated less than a third of the space in a 1,200-seat auditorium crammed with dignitaries and a huge camera platform.

They had to arrive at least an hour early and couldn't get out to go to the toilet or to have a smoke unless they went back through the security screening devices.

L Lots of babies were crying by the time the ceremonies began.

But Mr. Bush's appearance here probably meant more to the Groves' graduates and the relatively rare program that allowed them to receive regular high school diplomas through night classes than the president's June 1 visit to West Point meant to the cadets. "I felt like he came here to honor me," said Mr. Gibbs, 48, who went back to school after 30 years, six children and a heart attack -- and won a $500 scholarship to study at Delaware Technical and Community College. "This is my day."

Added Rita Schell, 28, a mother of two who said she had tried and failed several times to earn the last few credits she needed for a degree, "The most important thing is that we made it."

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