Longtime principal Dan Chacon moves to a new job in the district

Ebony Catano was decked out.

Friends and relatives slipped a dollar bill crown around the base of her bright red mortar board cap, filled her arms with bouquets and bedecked her with handmade necklaces, most more traditional with the numbers 2-0-1-9 and artfully folded money.

But one was more unusual, at least to somebody who didn't know Catano. The relative army of supporters surrounding her assured that the string of flaming hot Cheetos was totally appropriate.

Catano laughed when asked if she would eat them that night. "All of them," she said. "With lemon."

Sanger residents swarmed the grounds outside the Save Mart Center at the conclusion of Sanger High's class of 2019 graduation ceremony June 7. The crowd filled Fresno's biggest public venue, leaving only some seats in the higher reaches empty. A record more than 700 graduates walked to the stage to get diplomas. And despite all that, the event went off without a hitch. 

At least one organizer said the program chugged along about 20 minutes ahead of schedule. Navigating the gridlock traffic before and after the affair was another story altogether, giving Go Apaches! a whole new dimension.

Before graduation, all the seniors gathered in the lower reaches of the arena, lining up in various zones. Alyssa and Marissa Hansen looked decidedly different than their many months over the years playing basketball as Apaches. Marissa wasn't pressuring the other team under the basket, and Alyssa wasn't driving into enemy territory looking for an outside shot or open teammate.

In fact, Alyssa wore a pair of ruby red heels that definitely updated the look made famous in Oz. She said they had special significance in that they were "donated" by grandma. And her decision to wear them was simple. "Because they're awesome," she said. They gave her a slight height advantage over her twin. But not much.

Alyssa admitted to a little nervousness. But it wasn't shared. "Naw," Marissa said. She was chill, ready for anything.

Once the NJROTC crew brought in the flags and Vivian Andrade and Annika Klassen sang the National Anthem, homecoming queen, Miss Sanger and soccer standout Rachel Pimentel gave her student body president's welcome. She spoke about becoming difference makers, no longer having to wait 15 minutes before and after class for the school bathrooms to empty out and how mentors and parents helped her class succeed in a "scary world."

And she said how her class has grown and evolved and can do anything.

"The stigma of coming from a small town high school should not and will not limit us," she said. "As (principal Dan) Chacon always says, 'Once an Apache, always an Apache.'"

And for Chacon, the night marked his last as the overseer of graduation, as the grand marshal of everything that happens on the Sanger High campus and its related functions. After 19 years, he took a new position at the new Sanger Unified education complex west on Jensen Avenue.

He identified himself as "your principal of fun" and likened his students to a supernova — "bigger than ever." He said this class had the highest state test scores ever, that 36 of the graduates also earned associate of arts degrees from Reedley College and that Sanger is successful because of the importance families place on education. 

Chacon had students going into the military stand and be recognized. The audience made some noise. 

And, of course, Chacon gave his final top 10 list of things Sanger High seniors no longer have to worry about. Chacon said before graduation that he's been doing it so long he wondered if current students even realize where the concept came from. That bearded guy who has a new show on Netflix interviewing people was once a late night host known for innovative bits — David Letterman.

The top 10 list this year was written with black Sharpie on 10 separate envelopes. I recovered them from the stage after the last graduate received a diploma.

No. 10: "Telling Mr. Ponce to quit with the fist bumps and calling you 'Kiddo.'"

No. 9: "Receiving any more remind texts from Mr. Moua and Mrs. Gonzalez."

No. 8: "When watching Apache football in the student section, having to listen to the old folks complain about the music and dancing."

No. 7: "Waiting for your invite from the principal to go to the Doghouse Grill."

No. 6: "Trying to figure out just how old those foreign exchange students are."

No. 5: "Having to listen to Mr. Tillotson end every announcement with …" At which point Jon Tillotson, assistant principal, went up to the microphone and re-enacted the end with his trademark "Goooooooooooo Apaches," really, really stringing out the first word like he's a soccer announcer on the radio yelling "Goal!" But longer. Students expressed their appreciation.

No. 4: "No longer having to worry about beating the juniors in Powder Puff."

No. 3: "Having to use the app FenceTa to talk smack about the administration." (Disclaimer: I tried to figure out what this was and stumbled across fake Instagram accounts, or finsta, students use to post silly pictures or videos.)

No. 2: "When at school dances, having to listen to Mr. Ponce tell you and your date, "To leave a little room for Jesus between you."

No. 1: "Trying to figure out if Juan is a security guard, counselor, administrator or the new principal at SHS." Afterward, senior Juan Barajas said this may be a reference to him. He shows up at all event and does indeed appear to be in charge. However, after graduation he had tears in his eyes after hugging his mom. Administrators don't show emotion.

"You will shine like the lantern of learning," Chacon said. He also said that for 19 years he's seen students return from getting prestigious degrees. And he won't be all that far away, so he's still likely to be impressed when students return to give him updates on their accomplishments.

Senior Janessa Paez, who sang Adele's "When We Were Young," expressed some concern at the size of the audience before her performance. It looked about the size of the group that showed up for Kiss not long ago, without the makeup. Her friends reassured her. And she did great as soon as the music queued up correctly.

Rochelle Rodriguez, who is one of eight valedictorians and heading to Stanford, gave an address that talked about fear and overcoming it. "Fear will never entirely go away," she said. "I want to remind you to face these fears because you are not alone. We do not have room for self doubt. Through failure we learn how to succeed. This is how we give back to the community that shaped us."

Trinity Becerrill performed an excellent version of Miley Cyrus' "The Climb."

Additional valedictorians were Alejandra Munoz Aguallo headed for Fresno State, Madalyn Berry headed for Fresno State, Cristian Hernandez headed for Colby College, Daniel Ornelas headed for UC Berkeley, Emma Pena headed for UC Berkeley, Elijah Santibanes headed for Cal Poly and Jennifer Zarate headed for UC Berkeley.

And Chacon stood on the floor watching his students exit. Many stopped for a hug, shared a thumbs up or offered up a final word to the guy who always wore his cowboy hat to Apaches games and helped inspire teams to do their best.

"Ah man," Chacon said in almost a lament. "These guys are close."

Hannah Lucero then gave him a big embrace.

The reporter can be contacted by email at nemethfeatures@gmail.com or by phone at the Herald at (559) 875-2511.

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