Chris Collins
The Baker City Herald

W hile Baker High School’s graduation ceremony got off to a late start caused by technical problems with the sound system Sunday afternoon, the skies remained clear as temperatures rose to the low 90s, and the event was over within an hour.

The seniors were ushered in and remained standing for about 10 minutes before they were instructed to sit while adjustments were made. The show was allowed to go on about five minutes later.

In introducing speaker Jerry Peacock, Superintendent Mark Witty detailed Peacock’s 34-year career with the Baker School District, which began in 1983 when he took a job as assistant BHS principal.

Peacock spent the next seven years as Brooklyn Primary School principal before beginning his 22-year career as BHS principal.

In 2014 he turned his attention to helping develop and direct the Baker Technical Institute. Peacock retired from that position in June 2017.

He didn’t remain in retirement for long, however, Witty said. Peacock has worked this year as regional coordinator of Career Technical Education for the Malheur Education Service District, a job Peacock plans to return to next year, Witty said.

On Sunday afternoon Peacock grabbed the microphone and turned to face the graduates as he began his speech.

“My goodness, you look good in purple and gold,” he told the 97 young adults waiting to receive their diplomas as clouds began gathering over the Elkhorn Mountains to the west of the stadium.

The 62-year-old Peacock told the students that as a baby boomer, he struggled to find just the right words that would resonate with his audience of millennials.

He considered impressing upon them the inevitability of failure as they move forward in life.

“Failure is an opportunity — an opportunity to learn,” he told the graduates. “It can either motivate you or paralyze you.”

But then, wanting to be more positive in his message, Peacock said he considered perhaps an apology was owed them for having been protected from failure and not being allowed to learn from their own mistakes.

“We created this concept that success is the number of certificates of participation awarded and that everyone’s a winner and deserves a trophy,” he said. “The real world is based on results, not on medals.”

Peacock then turned to a speech he made about 10 years ago for Coach Dave Johnson’s football players.

“It amazed me that so many football players said ‘I like that. That makes sense to me,’ ” Peacock said.

The speech emphasized the value of relationships.

“Relationships will be the key to your success,” Peackock said.

The speech was based on the story of Capt. Charles Plumb, a U.S Navy jet pilot who flew 74 successful missions over Vietnam. Plumb was shot down on his 75th mission and was taken captive by the Viet Cong. He spent the next six years as a prisoner of war.

Peacock said Plumb survived and spoke about his experiences as a POW and what he had learned through the ordeal. Plumb tells the story of how one day he was approached by a man at a restaurant who recognized him.

“You’re a Navy jet pilot and you got shot down,” the man told Plumb. “I’m the guy who packed your parachute. I see it worked.”

Plumb went home that night and thought about the man who had ensured his safety and saved his life.

“Did I ever even speak to the guy?” he wondered. “Because, you know, I’m a top gun. I’m the best of the best when it comes to fighter pilots.”

The parachute packer, on the other hand, spent hours in the bowels of the Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier, out of the limelight, meticulously folding each parachute with care.

“What’s the moral of this story?” Peacock asked the graduates.

“You didn’t get here on your own. There are a lot of people out there who helped pack your chute,” he said. “What have you done to show them you’re thankful? What are you doing to do to help others pack their parachutes.”

Peacock encouraged the students to surround themselves with good people as they move forward in life.

“Be part of that team and help other people along the way pack their chutes.”

He used the elite Navy SEALs as another example of the importance of building relationships.

A SEAL administrator, in describing the type of person who most often qualifies for the program, said he is not necessarily the biggest, strongest or most athletic candidate.

“He might be the most nondescript person you’ll ever see,” the man explained. “But they are the ones who cheer others on.”

Peacock encouraged the graduates to follow that behavior.

“It’s not about you, it’s about cheering others on,” Peacock said. “Take care of one another. Encourage people. Be a part of the program.”

In pointing out the importance of good listening skills, Peacock next told the students about the father of former South African president and anti-apartheid revolutionary Nelson Mandela. The elder Mandela was a tribal leader who employed a listening style that allowed others to express their opinions while he listened attentively to each one before responding.

“Nelson learned the value of listening generously so you can respond responsibly,” Peacock said.

Peacock’s last nugget of wisdom drew applause from the audience of well-wishers who packed Bulldog Memorial Stadium.

“Here’s what I want you to hear if you don’t hear nothing else: Put down the phone and look at people eye to eye,” he said. “Put your device down. Get to know people. That’s what this country was built upon — relationships.”

In order to find success, there will be expectations beyond the classroom, he said.

“They want you to come to work, they want you to be ready to work, they want you to stay off the phone, they want you to be part of a team and they want you to develop relationships,” Peacock said.

He then shared words from the title of a 2015 song by country singer Tim McGraw: “Always Stay Humble and Kind.”

Peacock, a Florida native and Auburn University graduate, said he’d learned the lessons he spoke about Sunday from his grandma and grandpa who raised him.

His “granddaddy,” who had a third-grade education and never learned to read or to write, was an intelligent man and a hard worker.

“He knew how to work and he was willing to work and he had the ability to get along and the ability to build relationships,” Peacock said.

Salutatorian Kaeli Flanagan, whose speech preceded Peacock’s, and Valedictorian Mason Tomac, who spoke after Peacock, both reflected on their memories of high school.

“Today could be the last day that we see some of the faces that we’ve grown up sharing smiles with,” Flanagan told her classmates. “We may say goodbye to the people we spent so much time with, but we aren’t saying goodbye to the memories we made with them.

“Today is the end of high school, but it is the beginning of so much more,” she said.

As Tomac addressed the audience, he admitted that he didn’t feel especially qualified to provide words of inspiration or motivation.

Instead, he passed on advice spoken at the state Future Business Leaders of America conference this spring.

“Keep heading west,” Tomac said. “We don’t really need to know exactly where we will be in five,10 or 20 years. I know I don’t.”

“And we certainly don’t need to know every road we will take or every turn we will make on our ride.”

He encouraged his classmates to celebrate graduation as the completion of one stage of their lives.

“We don’t need to have all of the answers right now,” he said. “What we need to do is keep working hard, enjoy the good times, persevere through the bad, and always keep striving for our goals.

“Keep heading west, one step at a time. If we do this I know that all of us, the Baker High School Class of 2018, will have great success and very bright futures.”