REPUBLIC, Wash. – Former Alaska governor and Republican firebrand Sarah Palin brought a gift and a surprise for residents of this town of 1,100 who crowded the high school gym to celebrate its graduation Saturday afternoon.
Grads found the gift taped under their chairs onstage: a dollar bill. The currency taught a life lesson, Palin said.
“You gotta get off your butt to make a buck,” Palin said, to cheers from the crowd of 700 or so who had nabbed tickets to the event.
The surprise came later, as Palin revealed the motivation for her acceptance of the invitation from senior class President Tyler Weyer and the rest of the 26-member graduating class. The group posed in the school’s front yard holding a “We Want You, Governor Palin!” banner that went viral on Facebook and eventually led to her agreeing to deliver the commencement address.
Palin told a story about her father, Charles Heath, who in 1964 set out for Alaska from Sandpoint, Palin’s hometown where she had been born just a few months prior. Facing engine trouble, Palin said, he stopped in a small town, where the local mechanic fixed his station wagon for a pittance. That town, she said, was Republic, to gasps and murmurs from residents and graduates alike.
“You got us on our path,” Palin said, to more applause.
Palin’s presence lent a little extra pomp and circumstance to an annual tradition in the Ferry County seat, which boasts Stonerose fossil digs and lies within a rich gold-mining district. The ceremony featured caps, gowns, squealing infants and tearful parents sending face-reddening hand waves toward their children.
There were also subtle reminders of rural Washington. Senior Heather Giddings received the home economics award, earning praise as the “best wild game cook in Eastern Washington.” Giddings and her classmates celebrated their accomplishment on a stage flanked by paper banners bearing the class motto: “You Only Live Once.”
That phrase had special meaning for Weyer, who began the campaign to secure Palin as the class’s guest speaker earlier this semester.
“Through this entire process, I’ve learned many things,” Weyer said in his introduction of the former vice presidential candidate. “Anything is possible; all you’ve got to do is want it.”
More than just Republic’s senior class wanted a glimpse of Palin. Shops along Republic’s main drag welcomed the politician, and admirers from as far away as the Czech Republic were on hand to take in her words. Helen Weinar, who immigrated to the United States and now lives outside Seattle, and her daughter, Helen De Leon, plopped down outside Republic High School at 5:30 a.m. to ensure that they’d see Palin.
“It’s a dream come true,” Weinar said.
The two were soon joined by 1978 Republic graduate Susan Rohn, whose picture still hangs in the high school’s entryway with those of all the Republic graduates dating back decades. Her appearance now, with highlighted locks and thin-rimmed glasses, resembles the former governor’s in many ways, so much so it caught De Leon off guard.
“I said, ‘Mom, what are you doing sitting with the governor?’ ” De Leon said.
Weyer, who earned a scholarship from the county’s tea party political organization and impersonated Palin onstage in front of his classmates in April, said Friday he worried the focus had shifted from the students.
“I think people are really losing touch of what’s important,” Weyer said. Several residents had heard rumors students had been trying to sell one of their 20 allotted tickets for the event. A Craigslist seller last week sought $300 for a seat.
The focus was clearly on the students Saturday afternoon, however, as graduates Cody Wirth and Jesse Harding left the stage beaming and embraced their classmates.
“I’m going to miss the whole class,” Wirth said, clutching a celebratory kazoo the class played after shifting their mortarboard tassels from left to right.
“We’ll keep in touch,” Harding said.