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U.S. Sen. Al Franken appears at Willmar Senior High School graduation

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U.S. Sen. Al Franken, DFL-Minn. speaks Sunday during Willmar Senior High School graduation ceremony. He came to introduce graduate Muna Abdulahi, who was a page for the Senate last summer in Washington, D.C. "I was very impressed with her poise and her intelligence," he told the crowd. (RAND MIDDLETON | TRIBUNE)2 / 6
U.S. Sen. Al Franken, DFL-Minn. poses for a photo Sunday with former U.S. Senate Page Muna Abdinasir Abdulahi moments after she received her Willmar Senior High School diploma. (RAND MIDDLETON | TRIBUNE)3 / 6
Muna Abdulahi delivers a spoken-word, poetry style speech to a captive audience Sunday. (RAND MIDDLETON | TRIBUNE)4 / 6
Class President Tate Hovland speaks Sunday during the Willmar Senior High School graduation ceremony in Willmar. (RAND MIDDLETON | TRIBUNE)5 / 6
Valedictorian Maité Marin-Mera speaks Sunday during the Willmar Senior High School graduation ceremony in Willmar. (RAND MIDDLETON | TRIBUNE)6 / 6

WILLMAR — They said not to clap until all 236 Willmar High School graduates had crossed the stage Sunday— but some audience members just couldn’t help themselves.

Stomping, shaking the bleachers, screaming and cheering, they went stir-crazy when the names of their mortarboard-wearing loved ones were announced on stage to receive their diplomas.

Willmar High School graduations typically almost exclusively feature student speakers, but Sunday’s  2 p.m. ceremony was different — joining school board members on stage in the gymnasium was sitting U.S. Senator Al Franken.

Franken had asked to speak at the ceremony because Muna Abdulahi, one of this year’s graduates, had been a U.S. Senate page last summer in Washington, D.C., and he’d been largely impressed with her.

The senator was the fourth speaker of the day, after Superintendent Jeff Holm, Class President Tate Hovland, and Valedictorian Maité Marin-Mera.

Hovland talked about how accomplished and diverse this year’s graduates are.

“My advice to you is to live your life without setting a bar, because that will mean there is a limit to what you can do,” Hovland said.

Marin-Mera also focused on the diverse perspectives of this year’s class — and its ability to coexist through those perspectives.

“It is this quality of Willmar that makes us such a unique class,” Marin-Mera said. She advised the class against limiting their future life perspectives.

“I want to thank Maité and Tate for their thoughtful remarks. This is what future leaders look like,” Franken said.

The former comedian and Harvard alum mostly stuck to serious issues in his short speech, but ad libbed quips about wrestling (graduate Colten Carlson was the 2016 160-pound state champion) and the ‘Friends’ theme song (which was performed at the ceremony as this year’s class song).

Then, he introduced Abdulahi as the next speaker.

“I’m very certain [she] will be one of those leaders of the future,” Franken said. “I was very impressed with her poise and her intelligence.”

As she came onto the stage, Franken stuck out a hand for a handshake. Abdulahi went in for a big hug.

Her spoken word poetry-style graduation speech was followed by a standing ovation from the audience.

“I wasn’t a big fan of school until I became a big fan of me,” she said. “I wasn’t a big fan of school until I realized what a privilege it is to learn. That education was not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”

The other standing ovation of the ceremony followed a performance from the Willmar High School Cardinal Band and Choir, which performed “Battle Hymn of the Republic” to roaring applause.

The ceremony ended with the traditional tossing of the mortarboards and a recessional out the gymnasium doors.

That’s when the parents and other audience members met their graduates on the other side with smiles, hugs, flowers and balloons, and maybe a kiss or two on the cheek.

The ceremony, as Franken noted, was also about those people — the parents of the 236 graduates.

“[This year’s parents] have truly earned a day to relax, to celebrate, to take pride in their achievements,” Franken said. “Parents are every bit as proud and excited and nervous as you are today.”

One chair stayed vacant at the Sunday ceremony in honor and memory of Tyler Lorensen, a member of this year’s senior class who died in September at age 17.

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