In a hallway by the auditorium of Hopewell Valley Central High School, there is a row of plaques along the wall honoring the achievements of students.
The students pictured are not athletes,nor even valedictorians, nor the most promising of their classes. Instead, they are the ones who, 10 years after graduating, distinguished themselves somehow. There is a congressman, a basketball commissioner, a secret service agent, a naval aviator, and a few dozen others besides. This is the Distinguished Graduate Hall of Fame.
“Hopewell Valley has amazing students who do amazing things,” said CHS principal Michael Daher.
Now, the district is looking for nominations from the community for the hall of fame. Every year, a committee made up of administrators, teachers, students, community members and previous distinguished graduates meets in March to pick four graduates who will go into the hall of fame.
Nominees must have graduated at least 10 years ago and must have distinguished themselves in some way after high school. Achievements made before then are not considered.
The honorees return to the school in November and are the centerpiece of an assembly that is attended by the entire student body.
It wasn’t always that way, though. When the first two Distinguished Graduates were recognized in 2003, they attended an awards dinner in the evening and didn’t speak to the students at all.
Daher changed that when he came to the school in 2007. Borrowing an idea from Upper Moreland High School in Pennsylvania, where he previously worked, Daher had plaques made up for the previous distinguished grads and changed the event so it focused on the students.
“I wanted the kids to see what can be accomplished through hard work and perseverance,” he said.
In November, the school honored its 2012 distinguished grads: naval aviator Brandt Moslener, business owner Chris Murphy, English professor Rick Van Noy and entrepreneur Michael Simmons.
Van Noy, a 1985 graduate who writes and teaches English at Radford University in Virginia, said it was a great honor to return to his hometown. Van Noy said he normally returns once a year to visit his mother in Titusville, but that visiting his old high school reminded him of what a great launching point Hopewell was for his career.
“There were a lot of good teachers who seemed to enjoy what they were doing,” he said.
Van Noy said that Hopewell Valley continues to inspire him to this day. He is writing a novel about a group of teenagers coming of age in the area around Baldpate Mountain. Van Noy said he is fascinated with an abandoned farming settlement called Honey Hollow on the eastern side of the park. A few dozen ruined stone structures are still visible in the area.
“Living in Titusville, you had the sense that here was this layer of history beneath what you were walking and biking and traveling,” he said.
Just as Van Noy draws inspiration from Hopewell, Daher said he hopes high school students will draw inspiration from the successes of the distinguished grads.
Simmons, a 2000 graduate, started his first company when he was just 16. PrincetonWebDesigns no longer exists, but Simmons took the lessons he learned from that and applied them to a career in business. He now owns a company called Empact that teachers business skills to young people.
Simmons, a Plainsboro resident, has spoken twice before at the school and hopes to become more involved with teaching entrepreneurship to CHS students.
Simmons said he was lucky to have gone to CHS, which provided an environment in which his business skills could flourish.
“My peers and friends were also successful at what they did,” he said. “Being around a group like that was really powerful, and it was great to see all the things that others were doing. And the teachers really cared, and the amount of personal attention and interest I got was more in high school than I got in college.”
Daher said he realizes that not every student will respond to the examples set by the distinguished grads, but he hopes that the program will have some impact. He said impacting even one student would make it worthwhile.
“We want our kids to be inspired,” he said.
To nominate someone to be recognized as a distinguished graduate, email Daher at firstname.lastname@example.org.