Principal Ken Granger welcomed the overflowing gym to Cottondale High School, I’d like to welcome our students, faculty, staff, and our special guest Mr. William Lee Barnes. Today is a very special day for a very special individual. Students, faculty, and staff you are a part of history in the making. It is not too often that we get to hold a graduation ceremony for a 91-year-old World War II veteran and a Korean Conflict veteran. Today, is a constant reminder that it is never too late to accomplish your dreams. We also have the daughter of our honoree, Mrs. Beverly Rayfield, who reached out to me several moths ago, so we would like to thank her for this opportunity this morning.”
Barnes daughter, Beverly Rayfield thanked Granger and Superintendent of Schools Larry Moore, “It was 74 years ago that William Lee Barnes was a senior at Cottondale High School, and you the class of 2018, have the honor and the privilege of having a senior, senior in your class. I want to thank you for allowing us to have this day. I just want to tell you, he’s a very modest man. When I would tell him what I was going to say today, he would tell me, ‘No don’t say that. They don’t need to know that. It’s ancient history.’ He is a good man. Lee Barnes is a lucky man, and one of the reasons he’s so lucky is that today he has with him his two sisters. His two sisters are graduates of Cottondale High School. I hope that when you are in your 80s and 90s that you can still say, ‘That’s my little brother, or that’s my older sister.” I hope that you will still be a strong and loving family, because that’s what life is all about. If you look at the back of the program it tells you that Mr. Barnes has five kids, nine grandsons, and eight great-grands. He has all of these great things; the only other great thing would be if my mom and his wife of 65 years was with us. Lee Barnes decided he was going to join the Navy. There was a world war going on, and there was a fear that the Germans who had taken over all of Europe, they were battling Russia. They had weapons that could come to the United States and kill people. Had it not been for our service personnel, there’s a chance you and I would be speaking German today. He joined the Navy, had his parents sign for him, his mom didn’t want him to go. At seventeen, he had to decide do I stay and graduate, or do I go and protect my homeland? He was on a ship that was hit by two Kamikaze planes. There were over 600 casualties that day. He survived to go home, to meet a beautiful girl named Dorothy, to get married, and have five kids. I really think he’s lucky. Mr. Barnes served for 22 years because he joined at 17. He worked for another company for 22 years. He was able to retire again. He started at another company, it was until four years ago at the age of 88 after he worked for 70 years that he was able that he decided to retire. He is busier now I think than he’s ever been. I encourage you all to pay close attention to a role model. I am so proud of you students, kids don’t get credit for truly being good. My dad was a cook in the navy, my dad William Lee Barnes is going to tell you how important education is.”
Barnes went to the podium with a round of applause, “You don’t know how much it means to be here. To all of my graduating seniors, its an honor to be here with you. Now I don’t expect you to take as long as I did to graduate. I did not stop learning in the Navy. I have a two-year college degree. I was fortunate enough to attend Brown University and took management courses. Education is very important. Its easy to say, ‘I don’t want to go’, or ‘I don’t want to study.’ Its very important to study, because with education you can get somewhere. I don’t know if any of you are planning to go into the military, if you go into the military get that college education, it’s free. You can sign up just like I did and get an education or a trade. I really appreciate being here. I worked 22 years in universities. I want you all to study hard and make a go of it.”
Students Kaitlin Land and Kalina Torres, accompanied by fellow-student Kasey Lathan on keyboard, sang and played Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” for the retired soldier soon after the ceremony commenced.
Cottondale High School Principal Ken Granger and Jackson County Superintendent of Schools Larry Moore then presented Mr. Barnes with his high school diploma. The senior class of Cottondale High School presented Mr. Barnes with a vase of flowers. After the CHS Alma Mater was sung, Mr. Granger pronounced Mr. Barnes a 2018 graduate of Cottondale High School.
The standing ovation William Lee Barnes received from those present was nothing short of awe-inspiring and a testament to the student body at Cottondale High School and its administration, faculty and staff.