'Park Pride' offers one final salute

They call it Park Pride.

All across Delaware County in recent weeks, high school seniors have engaged in a rite of passage, collecting diplomas in front of beaming loved ones, and embarking on the next step of their life.

But there was something different marking the pomp and circumstance at the Academy Park High School graduation ceremony Tuesday morning.

While more than 270 graduates gleefully collected that prized piece of parchment, there also was a focus of someone who was not on the stage.

At Academy Park, they don't forget.

An empty chair, adorned with his graduation cap and gown, stood testament to Jaion Smith, Class of 2018.

Smith was tragically killed in a crash on I-95 just about a year ago.

The names of each Academy Park graduate was read aloud during the ceremony. When they got to Smith's name, the entire auditorium stood and applauded their, one final salute to their late classmate.

Smith's mother, Marquisha Ransom, was presented his diploma. She held it high for all to see as she fought back the tears. "He's with us," Ransom told the gathering. "I feel his presence. He had a big, bright spirit. I'm very proud."

Smith was a rising offensive lineman on the Academy Park football team. He stood 6 feet, 1 inch tall, wore jersey No. 77 and was known to his teammates as "Boogz."

"Our shining star's light was dimmed," said Jaion's paternal aunt after his death as the community rallied to support the family. "Jaion was a very humble kid, determined to succeed in academics, as well as football."

He certainly succeeded in leaving a mark on his classmates.

Joining Smith's mother at the graduation ceremonies were his stepfather Jamal Ransom and his father Jason Smith. All the Smith family members wore shirts emblazoned with Jaion's photo and the slogan #LongLiveJaion on them.

"We honor our fallen friends and carry on their memory in our hearts," said Academy Park senior Malcolm Bevans, Class of 2018 valedictorian, during his address to graduates.

Academy Park Principal Nathaniel Robinson called it "Park Pride," and urged graduates to continue to keep it in their lives. They've already done it in one spectacular fashion, keeping close to their hearts the memory of a classmate who would not be there with them for this seminal moment in their lives.

I'd say the Academy Park Class of 2018 is already well on their way.

Perhaps Bevans said it best.

"We're the best kept secret in Delco," his told his fellow graduating class. "Let's show the world just what this community has to offer."

You already have, Malcolm.

You already have.