Willmar seniors of 2020 honored in parade

A parade honoring the Willmar High School class of 2020 was held Sunday afternoon, giving students an opportunity to have one last celebration together with their classmates.

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J.P. McCormack waves a Willmar Cardinal flag to a crowd of people along Highway 71 during Sunday's 2020 Willmar High School graduation parade. Joe Brown / West Central Tribune

WILLMAR — There was a festive atmosphere in the parking lot of the Willmar High School Sunday afternoon as graduating seniors eagerly awaited for the start of their unique graduation celebration.

Decked out in their Cardinal red caps and gowns the students climbed into convertibles, poked their heads out of vehicle windows, or sat in chairs in the back of pickups that were decorated with balloons, streamers, banners, photos and flags.

COVID-19 curtailed the traditional commencement ceremony, which was replaced with an online video.

But to help the students celebrate their achievements — and to let the community celebrate the students — a parade was held through Willmar.


Despite the obvious disappointment of not walking across the stage to receive a diploma in a full auditorium filled with classmates, family and friends, the students were cheerful and grateful for the chance to celebrate together as a class.

“I think we’re all excited to decorate our cars and we get to do this as friends and meet together and say our last goodbye as a whole group. It’s a cool way.” said Addilyn Mitteness, 18, of Willmar.” It’s different and it’s going to go down in history and we’re never going to forget it. It’s fun. It’s good.”

Sebastian Valdez, 18, of Willmar, said he’d been looking forward to prom and graduation but said celebrating with a parade was special. “It’s unique to our generation and we’re going to remember it,” he said. “I’m just taking what we can get and enjoying what we can because we can’t enjoy a lot at this time right now,” he said.

Valdez said he hopes his younger sister, a freshman at Willmar High School, will be able to have a normal graduation ceremony.

“This will definitely be a year to remember,” said Stella Peppin, 18, of Willmar. “This is not how I exactly planned to be celebrating but I’m glad the school figured out something better to do.”

Peppin said her family worked hard to decorate a pickup with a balloon arch. “I think it turned out great,” she said. “I’m happy.”

Bailey Erickson and her friend Kresson Johnson, both 18 and from Willmar, were riding in a snazzy red convertible.


“It’s definitely different than what we were expecting, but I think it’s still going to be a lot of fun and just a different way to celebrate that what we usually do,” said Erickson.

Johnson said she was excited to do something “as a class and get to celebrate together.”

“It was better than just coming to the parking lot and saying goodbye to the teachers for one last time,” said Jorge Garcia, 18, of Willmar. “To see the town and to have them see us — it’s good to see.”

Marcus Ornelas, 17, of Willmar, had a placard on his vehicle stating he was headed for the National Guard, said he was happy with the unique celebration.

“I think it’s way better than a graduation, I guess, because we get to do a whole parade around the city,” he said. Ornelas said being a senior during COVID has given him some valuable lessons.

“Life throws unexpected things at you, so you just have to learn to embrace it,” he said. “Be prepared for anything and don’t let your hopes die out.”

His father, Mauricio Ornelas, said he was glad the school was doing the parade as a tribute to the seniors as a way to “honor their hard work and dedication” and to let them know the community is proud of them.

“This community brings everyone together,” he said. Everyone likes to pitch in and do their part and show how much we care for one another in this community.”


There was a strong display of community support in the parade including escorts by police, a fire truck and representatives from the local National Guard, VFW and American Legion who rode in a pickup with flags.

“We’re just happy to be part of it and honored to be invited,” said Bret Kasel, captain of the Honor Guard from VFW 1639.

“The kids made a lot of sacrifices,” said Hank Haglund, post adjutant for the American Legion Honor Guard.

Rep. Dave Baker said he is “so sorry” the students missed out on “some really big things” during their senior year because of COVID but he said the community is very proud of them.

Willmar Mayor Marv Calvin said all the graduating seniors this year and “gone through a lot” and the parade honoring the Willmar class is “an opportunity for them to be recognized for the accomplishments that they’ve made.”

Calvin said the students learned some tough lessons this year that will last them a lifetime.

“You’ve had a good lesson on how to improvise and get things done and you guys are going to be true leaders on how to really change the course of our nation and our country,” he said. “And I’m so proud of what you have done and what you have become.”


Carolyn Lange is a features writer at the West Central Tribune. She can be reached at or 320-894-9750
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