The members of the Choteau High School Class of 2012 came together one last time for graduation on May 27, leaving behind their high school years with a powerful, heartfelt message from commencement speaker Clay Crawford ringing in their ears.

Choteau rancher and community benefactor Clay Crawford was the Class of 2012’s pick to deliver the commencement address, and while Crawford was sure he must have been a last-minute substitution, Senior Class President Mariah Wearley, thanking him for his inspirational words, told him, “Despite what you think, you really were our first choice.”

Wearley said, “He was chosen by the senior class because of his outstanding support not only for our class, but for the entire Choteau school system.” She called Crawford an outstanding role model for everyone in the Choteau community.

Crawford’s message was short and simple: live life fully every minute of every day, because you don’t know when it’s all going to end; tell your family you love them every chance you get; and be able to find a way to pick up the pieces when life as you knew it goes awry.

Crawford delivered his speech on the 30th anniversary of his own high school graduation from CHS with the Class of 1982.

But 32 years ago, Crawford, then 17, lost his entire family — parents and three sisters — in a small plane crash at the Choteau Airport. One minute he was a strong, able young man, the next minute he was a shattered trauma victim. He suffered a broken back and spinal cord injury, a severe concussion that left him in a coma for a month, multiple other broken bones and internal injuries. He spent a year in hospitals and rehab centers, learning to walk again with a pair of crutches and special shoes, built up to even out the difference in the length of his legs and to adapt to his shattered ankles.

He returned to Choteau High School in the fall of 1981 to complete his senior year and graduate, on that same stage, with his classmates.

“I’m am positively terrified,” Crawford said from the podium, looking out onto a full-house audience in the CHS gym. “I’d rather be hit by a bus.”

Crawford had prepared a speech, but chose to leave his notes in his pocket for most of the talk, instead hitting the high points from his life that he hoped would resonate with the Class of 2012.

“I’m very honored to be here today and to be speaking to the senior class of 2012,” he said. “I don’t have a lot of wisdom, but I’ve got a lot of living and I’ve been through a lot.”

Prior to the plane accident, Crawford said, “Life was wonderful.”

After the accident, he had to learn how to pick up the pieces and go on. He started by taking his junior year classes in the hospital with a tutor so he could go back to CHS and stay with his class. He continued by graduating here and going on to college at Montana State University, where he earned his bachelor’s degree. Later, he got married, and was a father to Misti and Dusty Crawford. Even then, however, life wasn’t done throwing curveballs of tragedy as he and his family lost Dusty at age 13 to a long battle with brain cancer.

“I just kept pushing,” he said. “What I want to share with you is, don’t quit. Life isn’t fair.”

But, he said, “Life is good. It’s just what you make of it. It’s how you respond. It’s how you get up when you get knocked down.”

He also told the seniors that no matter how slow time seems to be moving now, it’s about to rocket off. “By golly, you’re 18 and then you’re 50. There’s not a lot of time in between.”

So make good use of that time, he said. Make fast friendships and treasure those friends. “I know that sounds kind of silly or childish, but, enjoy your friends,” he said.

Know that you’ll make mistakes, but be able to learn from those mistakes and go on, he said. And he also made a request to seniors that they find a way to give back to their community, wherever that may be. “It’s a good feeling,” he said.

“I just want you kids, young people, adults, who are headed out today to finally finish this high school education to enjoy what the world has to offer.”

But, he also asked to be careful. “Life can be short. It is short for some. But you’ve got to take care of yourself. Don’t go out there and drink and drive or text. — Wear your seat belts,” he said.

Finally, he said, “Let your family and friends know that you love them every day, because you never know.”

The Class of 2012 included 38 students, many of whom had been going to school together since kindergarten. Introducing the class, CHS Principal Nate Achenbach named some of the class’s accomplishments, including that this class includes members of the district and divisional champion volleyball team, divisional champion wrestlers, district champion boys track members, track athletes who have set new school records.

Many of the students are all-state athletes in football, volleyball, boys basketball, wrestling, golf, track and speech and debate. One student is on the Choteau Athletic Wall of Fame and eight are in the CHS Academic Hall of Fame, he said.

Six of the seniors scored at or above the 88 percentile nationally on their ACT while of those 1 scored at the 99th percentile. Twenty-two seniors earned 45 scholarships worth $292,947 and some of those scholarships can be renewed for an additional three years for$781,581 more, for a total of $1,074,528 in scholarships over four years.

Choteau track standout Jacob Horn with a 3.86 grade-point average, delivered the class salutatorian’s address. Horn plans to attend Carroll College, where he will study health sciences in the pre-physical therapy option and, he hopes, run on the Carroll track team.

With a bit of dry humor, Horn told the crowd that the day he entered high school, he had one goal: to have the highest possible GPA he could without being selected to give a speech on graduation day. “Well here I stand,” he said. “Although I may not seem the least bit thrilled, I am very honored. The main thing people want out of life is to be successful. In my eyes, there are three main qualities a person must possess, along with a good work ethic, in order to be successful in life.”

Those qualities, he said, start with setting goals for oneself and then following through. Next, he said, one has to have honesty to build trust for the future. And finally, he said, one must have respect.

“By setting goals, being honest, and having respect for yourself and others, you will be successful in life,” Horn said. “These are three simple steps that don’t take a whole lot of effort. So to the Class of 2012: have a good work ethic, believe in yourselves, and you can accomplish anything.”

The class valedictorian, Susan Heuscher, earned her rank with a perfect 4.00 grade-point average. She plans to attend Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., where she will study nursing as a prelude to becoming a pediatric care nurse.

Echoing some of the same themes that Crawford touched on, Heuscher urged her classmates to live life to the fullest and not to waste their happiness on holding grudges. She also encouraged them to learn from their mistakes and never to forget that no matter what, life rolls on.

She reminisced a bit about memories from high school and grade school, and from her many years as a Teton County 4-H club member, but honed in on her main message: to exhort her class to dream and to dream big.

“Living life without dreams is like a plane that doesn’t fly É like being alive without really living,” she said. “Dreams are the cornerstone to any success. Without dreams, you have nothing. So always dream, and when you dream, dream vividly and passionately, using your imagination.”

“What you all need to remember is that you must live out your dreams — quickly because we don’t know how long we have left. Live these dreams out so you can make room for new ones, so you can live those out too.”

She said little children set their sights high and aren’t afraid to dream about becoming an astronaut or a ballerina, but as people get older, they sometimes let fear stop them from dreaming.

“So I challenge each and every one of you now to take a moment and think of what you want most out of life. Create your dream now, then go and live it out tomorrow.”

During the graduation program, the Choteau High School and junior high band performed under the direction of Lorran Depner, who also conducted special junior women’s and senior women’s ensembles.

Choteau school board Chairman Mark Henderson awarded each graduate his or her diploma while school guidance counselor Patsy Betcher read off the seniors’ names and what their plans are for the future.