Meet the top Catholic high school graduates of the Diocese of Peoria
EDITOR’S NOTE: Following are brief biographies of the valedictorians and salutatorians at the Catholic high schools and academies in the Diocese of Peoria. We congratulate them and all graduates.
We invited the top students to answer two questions: 1) “How would you describe the advantages of attending a Catholic high school?,” and 2) “Name one or two moments you will particularly remember from your high school experience, and explain why they were memorable.”
CENTRAL CATHOLIC – Bloomington
Nathan Tomerlin – Valedictorian
Parents: Chris and Donna Tomerlin
College choice: University of Illinois
Anticipated major: Civil Engineering
High school activities: Soccer, baseball, Scholastic Bowl, World Youth in Science and Engineering (WYSE), Bridge Building, Science Club, Vita Christi
Catholic high school advantages: You get the chance to openly discuss your faith. You can talk to your teachers about struggles you are having with your faith.
Memorable moments: I will always remember the March for Life trip. Though we didn’t march, it was great to share that time with my classmates. I also enjoyed the day when some friends and I drove to three different playoff sports games.
Emma Hartness — Salutatorian
Parents: Ty and Lisa Hartness
Parish: Historic St. Patrick
College choice: Illinois State University
Anticipated major: Chemistry (Pre-Med) / Spanish double major
High school activities: Vita Christi (service and evangelization club), president; National Honor Society, vice president; band; jazz band; varsity track and field; Flying Dragons Pole Vault Club; Interact Club; March for Life, Washington, D.C. and Chicago; Seedling Theatre Production Staff (dramatic theatre for mentally and physically disabled children and adults); Special Olympics; Ambassadors Club; Mu Alpha Theta; WYSE Team; Catholic HEART Workcamp.
Catholic high school advantages: There are so many opportunities to learn about and live our faith, and the environment is so welcoming and inspirational. I’m especially thankful for our chapel. Jesus is present in our school, we can stop in and pray anytime, and we have the opportunity to go to Mass at least once a week.
Memorable moments: One of my most memorable moments was when we went to the Youth Rally at the March for Life in Washington, D.C.. It was amazing to see so many people in one place supporting life. While it was disappointing that we didn’t actually get to march (our bus left early because of the huge snowstorm), our class really bonded on that trip and it reinforced our beliefs about respecting all life.
THE HIGH SCHOOL OF SAINT THOMAS MORE — Champaign
William D. Vavrin — Valedictorian
Parents: John and Laura Vavrin
Parish: St. Matthew
College choice: University of Illinois — Chicago
Anticipated majors: Music, Spanish — Economics, Spanish Education
High school activities: Music and drama including fall plays and spring musicals all four years; Madrigals all four years; “Note Nerdy” (a capella group) for three years; Science Olympiad all four years; yearbook editor for three years; cross country for two years; Scholastic Bowl for four years, National Honor Society for three years and Spanish Honor Society for three years.
Catholic high school advantages: Small classes, individualized attention, advantage of participating in multiple activities (not limiting to just a few interests), and allowing to attend the local community college (Parkland College) for dual credit, and eventually earning my associates degree in science as a senior.
Memorable moments: Singing at Carnegie Hall, New York City, directed under Deke Sharon who arranged music for the movie “Pitch Perfect.” It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Also, being able to stage manage the musical “Alice in Wonderland” my freshman year. I was put in a demanding position early in high school and able to work with so many talented upperclassmen.
Michael Kehl — Salutatorian
Parents: Ralph and Jackie Kehl
Parish: Holy Cross
College choice: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Anticipated major: Biology
High school activities: Varsity golf
Catholic high school advantages: Catholic education has provided me with a blueprint for living. It has given me both the human and spiritual formation necessary to lead a successful and fulfilling life. Academically, I have been taught that hard work and perseverance pay off. Essentially, the consistency of a K-12 Catholic education has provided me the tools necessary to move confidently into the next phase of my life.
Memorable moments: The most memorable moment of my high school experience was participating in the 2013 Boys Golf State Final Tournament. Being able to represent my school with my fellow teammates and friends was a wonderful experience that will remain with me throughout my life.
SCHLARMAN ACADEMY — Danville
Sara Cooper — Valedictorian
Parents: Jeff and Lisa Cooper
Parish: St. Paul
College choice: Danville Area Community College
Anticipated major: Nursing
High school activities: Drama/Film and Scholastic Bowl
Catholic high school advantages: High school is a time when most adolescents struggle to find themselves and if they have a faith, struggle in what they believe. I myself have struggled with my faith and I undoubtedly believe what got me through it was my Catholic high school. The advantage is that the teachers and staff are there to help reaffirm what you believe in already. Catholic high schools also tend to be small and I find this the best part because the people at my school were like a second family to me; we studied, argued and laughed together. Since the school was small I got a lot of one-on-one time with the teachers. I feel I learned much more from them and connected more with them than if I attended a public school.
Memorable moments: Well, there are many moments, but to pick a few I would have to say working as stage director during our school’s production of “Seussical” and when my close friend Jessica and I wrapped everything in our friend Mary’s locker in aluminum foil as a prank. These are memorable to me because I allowed myself to open up this year and be myself. Also, I was surrounded by people I love and enjoy being around.
Ellen Elghammer — Salutatorian
Parents: Dr Richard and Mona Elghammer
College choice: Parkland College
Anticipated major: Social Work
High school activities: Scholastic Bowl, National Honor Society, STAND (Students Taking A New Direction)
Catholic high school advantages: The largest advantage to me is being able to discover your faith in new and different ways. Catholic education can help you determine the true meaning of and principles of your beliefs, which helps you to gain a better understanding of what the Catholic faith really is. Even if you aren’t Catholic, it provides insight into morality that you can’t get at other institutions.
Memorable moments: One of my most memorable moments of my high school career was actually a recurring one. After Mass, all of the students would join together in singing Schlarman’s Alma Mater. Everyone participated, and we even linked arms sometimes. It just felt like we were really a family during these moments. Doing it together one last time at our Graduation Mass was definitely emotional for all of us.
MARQUETTE ACADEMY — Ottawa
Alex Kissel — Valedictorian
Parents: Lenee and Douglas Kissel
Parish: St. Columba
College choice: University of Mississippi
Anticipated major: Biology
High school activities: Dance, theater, Scholastic Bowl, choir, WYSE Team, Bridge to Friendship, Student Ambassadors, National Honor Society
Catholic high school advantages: Attending a Catholic school has allowed me to become extremely close with both my classmates and my teachers. I have developed great one-on-one relationships with the faculty, and I know the names of every single person in my school.
Memorable moments: One of my favorite moments from high school was the senior dance. My class got together and learned a routine which we performed at the Fine Arts Festival. It was really cool because we started out interspersed in the crowd, a siren went off, and we all made our way up to the stage. It was just really nice to do something like that together.
Senior Retreat was the best experience of my high school career. It allowed me to get to know some of my classmates better than I ever thought I would. I was able to make friends with people even in our last year of high school. It changed my outlook on my situation and made me appreciate more deeply what I have at Marquette.
Kenny Zollars — Salutatorian
Parents: Kevin and Jane Zollars
Parish: St. Columba (Ottawa)
College choice: Purdue University
Anticipated major: Professional Flight Technology
High school activities: Varsity track and field (three years), Scholastic Bowl (four years), Student Government (three years, on as vice president), National Honor Society (three years), Order of the M (three years), and while in high school I obtained my private pilot license.
Catholic high school advantages: The advantage of attending a Catholic high school is that you receive all of your necessary education while having God as a major part. Without God, I would never have been able to accomplish everything that I have done in high school and I would not have a future if He was not in my life.
Memorable moments: One memorable moment from high school for me was senior retreat. We had such a good time as a class and we bonded in ways I never thought possible. I got to know some of my classmates so much better during that experience and I am so grateful that I was a part of it.
Another memorable thing about Marquette as a whole was the tremendous sense of family that I felt throughout my entire time there. Everyone cares about everybody else and I really felt as though I mattered to everyone within the school. I really enjoyed my time at Marquette and it is a little bittersweet to realize that it is over.
NOTRE DAME — Peoria
Jessica Bolton — Co-Valedictorian
Parents: Jeffery and Mary Bolton
Parish: St. Philomena Parish
College choice: Augustana College, Rock Island
Anticipated major: Undecided
High school activities: Foreign Exchange with the Friends of Friedrichshafen (Peoria’s German Sister City), Concert Choir, PND Bass Fishing Team, JV basketball and JV volleyball, Student Ambassadors, German Club, and choir at St. Philomena Parish
Catholic high school advantages: Without Catholic high school, I would have never positively developed my faith. My school has its own chapel with a very kind chaplain, Father Stimpson, and Adoration and Confession are offered multiple times per week. The proximity to the sacraments really helped me when my morale was low. Religious sisters teach and offer guidance in the high school as well, from the orders of the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, and the Servants of the Pierced Hearts of Jesus and Mary. I developed friendships with the sisters and even went on a discernment retreat with the Dominicans. Seeing sisters so young, beautiful, and vibrant in their faith and lives opened my eyes to the joys that can be experienced when living a religious life. I was never judged for having faith while at Peoria Notre Dame, and there were no penalties for praying in school or having in-depth talks about religion like there would be in public schools.
Finally, without a Catholic high school, my ability to defend the faith with Church teaching would have been extremely poor. My school taught me what we believe and, more importantly, why we believe it.
Memorable moments: One moment that I will always remember happened at the end of my freshman year. I decided on the day before the last day of school that I was going to make cookies for my friends and acquaintances as a treat to end the year. One person, whom I had only just begun to make friends with, told me that he was going to be out of the country with no friends for most of the summer. I decided to give him an entire plate of cookies rather than a small baggie. When I gave him the plate, he seemed astounded. He said, quietly and with sincerity, “I really appreciate this.” The entire exchange left a warm, happy glow from my nose to my toes. This moment is memorable to me because, after that moment, I tried my best to do small, kind gestures for others throughout my high school years.
Another memorable moment happened my junior year while on the Bass Fishing Team. It was my first year as a female fisherman on a team dominated by males. I was not the best fisherman, especially with my old fishing rod and outdated reel. I enjoyed long-casting, so I was practicing my casting out into the middle of a lake when suddenly my rod lurched forward with the force of a bite. As I fought the fish, the boys took notice and came over to cheer me on. I could not land the fish myself (for I was too far away from the bank), so the team captain grabbed it while exclaiming, “It’s a bucket mouth!” The fish weighed in at 5.29 lbs, my biggest fish. I caught the largest fish of the day, beating out all of the boys, and my male coach was very impressed with my catch. This moment is memorable to me because of its classic boy/girl rivalry, and this time at least, a girl (me) came out on top.
Nicholas Brose — Co-Valedictorian
Parents: John and Jenny Brose
Parish: St. Jude
College choice: Benedictine College
Anticipated major: Biology
High school activities: Cross country, track, Scholastic Team, Lumen Christi, Teens for Life, Boy Scouts (Eagle Scout)
Catholic high school advantages: During the high school years, a student forms much of the ideology that will influence them throughout their lives. This is highly influenced by the teachers, students, and curriculum that the individual is exposed to. A Catholic high school provides a unique environment that forms these values in the spirit of Jesus Christ and sets them on a path that will serve them all through their life.
Memorable moments: One of the most memorable moments in my high school career was my first time running in the Richard Springs cross country meet. It is easily the largest race our school attends. The sense of support and community from all my fellow runners really helped me appreciate the sport. Another one of my favorite memories was attending a Teens Encounter Christ weekend over the summer. This was especially significant because I feel that this event was largely responsible for the current state of my faith life and also helped me choose a college with strong Catholic values.
JohnPaul Stedwill — Salutatorian
Parents: Jeff and Julie Stedwill
Parish: St. Jude
College choice: Benedictine College
Anticipated major: Biology, with a focus on pre-medicine
High school activities: Student Government President, Student Ambassador, master of ceremonies at all-school Masses, Lumen Christi core team member, four-year varsity wrestler
Catholic high school advantages: Attending a Catholic high school has given me the opportunity to study objective truths in the light of the Gospel. The presence of religious life in my high school has been a constant reminder of the purpose of education: to form us into better men and women. Besides receiving an exceptional high school education, I am prepared and eager to continue my studies at one of the premier Catholic colleges in America.
Memorable moments: It would be hard for me to ever forget serving all-school Masses with PND’s chaplain, Father Adam Stimpson, and fellow master of ceremonies Dominic Tudor. The reverence and patience Father showed while Dominic and I tried our best to perform our duties was truly memorable.
Another significant memory happened in one of my senior literature classes. The class was engaged in a discussion about a particular work we had read, and the student opinions reflected the education we have received in the past four years. This seemingly ordinary memory sticks out to me as proof of our readiness to continue our education and careers. We will choose different universities and professions, but each of us has the formation of young Catholic men and women.
ST. BEDE ACADEMY — Peru
Benjamin Lucas — Valedictorian
Parents: Robert and Mary Lucas
Parish: St. Patrick
College choice: Villanova University
Anticipated major: Undecided
High school activities: Interact Club (board member), Spanish Club, baseball (one year), tennis (three years, co-captain), basketball (four years), Christian Service Program
Catholic high school advantages: In my opinion, attending a Catholic high school allows students to become part of a tight-knit family — that was the case for me at St. Bede, at least. Not to mention, it makes it much easier to learn and grow in one’s faith.
Memorable moments: One of the most memorable moments of my high school career — probably because it happened so recently — was when my doubles partner, Jack Kunkel, and I qualified for State in the sectional tennis tournament. Qualifying for State after three years of playing tennis was the perfect way to end my high school sports career, and it was really humbling to find out that Jack and I were the first male tennis players from St. Bede to qualify for State in the last decade.
Jacob Peruba — Salutatorian
Parents: Cory and Terrie Peruba
College choice: University of Illinois (UIUC)
Anticipated major: Biochemistry
High school activities: Student government executive board, tennis captain, Spanish Club board, Interact Club
Catholic high school advantages: Particularly at St Bede, the small family-like community made learning more one-on-one and focused on the well-being of the students. Our studies of our own faith and other faiths helped me to become more cultured and understanding.
Memorable moments: Giving a speech at Mass the night before graduation because it is when I really realized that my hard work and dedication in high school had paid off.
ALLEMAN — Rock Island
Rachel Elliott — Valedictorian
Parents: Jon and Pam Elliott
Parish: Sacred Heart
College choice: Drake University
Anticipated major: Biology/Pre-Med
High school activities: National Honor Society President, tennis captain, Key Club, Sigma Alpha Delta Advisory Board
Catholic high school advantages: Over the years of attending Catholic school, I’ve found the greatest advantages to be teachers who are invested in students’ success and families who are really involved in their children’s lives. It creates an environment where students are challenged, supported, and encouraged to do well.
Memorable moments: One experience I will never forget is being on homecoming court. It came as a big surprise to me, but my school and peers were so supportive. The entire week was filled with tradition, and I think that is what makes Alleman special.
Another one of my fondest memories is playing on the Alleman tennis team. From making new friends to setting school records, everything about it was exciting to me. I will always remember circling up and holding hands to pray before meets. It was fun and rewarding, and I loved every second of it.
Nicole Polzin — Salutatorian
Parents: John and Christine Polzin
Town: East Moline
College choice: Case Western Reserve University
Anticipated major: Biochemistry
High school activities: National Honor Society, varsity boys basketball manager, track and field, Worldwide Youth in Science and Engineering
Catholic high school advantages: I believe I had an advantage compared to those who attended public school because I was able to grow in my faith with the help of the priests and chaplains available at my school. Also, being open in my faith was not looked down upon, but rather encouraged by my peers.
Memorable moments: One of my favorite memories was a bus ride to Quincy with the boys basketball team (me being their manager). I’ll never forget the laughs and stories shared along the way.