‘Smile a lot, it’s a good day’: Elgin Academy holds final official graduation

As they wrote a final chapter on the 185-year history of their school, the Elgin Academy community focused on sending off their final senior class on a celebratory note Saturday.

A steady morning rain forced their graduation ceremony from its normal picturesque spot on the quad to inside the gym. While giving the students some last minute instructions on the changes, Assistant Head of School Doug Sept’s final directive was his most important.

“Smile a lot, it’s a good day,” he said.

  Naomi Grigsby-Bailey has her tassel flipped by Assistant Head of School Doug Sept during Elgin Academy’s final official graduation Saturday. Rick West/

Nineteen seniors received their diplomas Saturday at the school, which will close following a special summer session allowing some juniors to graduate early.

The school’s trustees and leadership announced in November that the 2023-24 school year would be its last. Dwindling enrollment had seen the number of students fall by about 50% in the last 10 years, causing a budget shortfall of $4 million last school year.

Senior Ryan Zonts reflected on what was to come as he and his classmates got ready before the ceremony.

“I’m pretty emotional about it, I know we all are,” Zonts said. “It’s definitely sad but it’s also really joyful, because I know that we’re going to do great things.”

Zonts said the physical campus isn’t what’s important.

  Classmates applaud as Ryan Zonts is the final graduate to be called during Saturday’s Elgin Academy graduation. Rick West/

“It’s a little bit tough because I know that once I walk out of here, this might be the last time I’ll ever step foot here,” he said. “But it doesn’t matter if there’s a place or not; the community we’ve built, it’s so tight knit that no matter where we are or where we go, we’ll always have someone to fall back on.”

Senior Kate Kihnke later echoed that sentiment during her valedictorian speech.

  Valedictorian Kate Kihnke speaks during the Elgin Academy graduation Saturday. Rick West/

“Although our Elgin Academy community will no longer be tied to an active school, our beloved hilltop itself, it lives on through each of us,” she said. “The love that radiates among us and this place is immeasurable and will never be forgotten. Let’s not let 185 years of strength and community fade, but instead let it live on through the communities we continue to create around us.”

Graduate Victoria Hill said that in the moment it felt like a normal graduation.

  19 graduates toss their caps at the end of Elgin Academy’s graduation ceremony Saturday. Rick West/

“It hasn’t hit me yet,” Hill said of the school’s closure. “It feels like we’re always going to have this. I don’t think about the school closing, I think about the community and the spirit living on.”

Some parents admitted that the imminent closure made the event a little melancholy.

  Rachel Krueger wipes away tears while taking pictures of her son Tayten Wilder receiving his diploma during the final official Elgin Academy graduation Saturday. Rick West/

“It’s just sad,” said Rachel Kruger, whose son Tayten Wilder was among the graduates. “It’s so sad that this school has gone through so much, so much rich history, and now it’s not going to be here for these guys to come to.”

Alan Scimeca, chair of the board of trustees, said he hopes another school will open on the campus. Regardless, he thinks the school community made the most of their final year.

“There’s a lot of pride around how the students and faculty carried Elgin Academy’s last days in such a wonderful and positive way,” Scimeca said. “185 years is a heck of a run.”

  Lily Gonzalez takes pictures of classmates following Saturday’s Elgin Academy graduation. Rick West/
  Students get together for some impromptu karaoke before Saturday’s Elgin Academy graduation. Rick West/
  The class of 2024 gathers for a last senior photo before Elgin Academy’s graduation Saturday. Rick West/
  The 2024 Elgin Academy senior class wait in the rain to process in for the school’s final official graduation Saturday. Rick West/
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