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Chris Hunter almost didn't make it to East Oktibbeha County High School's graduation.
During a speech at the ceremony, Oktibbeha County School District Superintendent James Covington called Hunter forward for special recognition before he received his hard-earned diploma. Earlier in the year, Covington said, Hunter became academically ineligible to play sports, which, at the time, was one of Hunter's primary motives for staying in school.
"Chris fell on some hard times this year where he almost gave up, but a winner never gives up," Covington said. "That touched my heart. I used to call Chris to the office and talk to him like he was my son. I told him, 'Look, you show up in school, and we'll do whatever we can to help you graduate.'"
Hunter was one of 31 EOCHS graduates who received their diplomas at a ceremony Sunday at Mississippi State University's Humphrey Coliseum.
Covington said he was proud of all the graduates, and quoting Whitney Houston's "Greatest Love of All," he said the graduates have all they need to succeed within them. Also present to provide words of inspiration was OCSD Board President Curtis Snell.
"Make sure, at the age of 50, you view life differently than you do now," Snell said. "You will always be successful only if you want to be successful. Only as much as you can dream, you can be. We want you to know that just because you are leaving here, you are not leaving our hearts."
Helen Kennard, principal of EOCHS, said the graduates have earned nearly $450,000 in scholarships. While every graduate possesses individuality, she said they are fantastic as a group.
"I expect to see and hear many great things that you all are going to do in the future," Kennard said.
Salutatorian Ani Rice thanked God, EOCHS teachers and the parents for their support through the years. She said she will never forget her classmates, and while school may have been challenging at times, it has prepared them for the real world.
"We are glad to not wake up at 6 a.m. for a while," Rice said, "but waking up at 6 a.m. has brought us a long way and helped us get ready for a career."
Valedictorian Ashley Ellis also gave thanks to her teachers, parents and God in her speech, and she said the seniors will always be remembered as the class of 2012 after they go their separate ways.
"The past is history," Ellis said. "The future is a mystery. This moment is a gift."