One day, one building, two graduations.
Long high school careers had been made even longer by the disruption of last year due to COVID-19 and the extra precautions that lasted the entirety of their final year on each campus. But on Sunday, the seniors from Thunder Basin High School and Campbell County High School finally walked the stage to receive their hard-earned diplomas.
Thunder Basin High School
TBHS students and families celebrated with the first of the day’s graduations at Cam-plex’s Wyoming Center. Seating on three sides of the center looked at a stage above which hung a giant “2021” sign, and the doors on each side of the stage were framed by blue and silver balloons twisted together to form an arch.
Promptly at 1 p.m., the TBHS band began Pomp and Circumstance, and the TBHS faculty walked out first, dressed in black gowns. Behind them came the graduates, more than 250 of them, dressed in blue, and after they made a lap around the entirety of the center, they began to fill in the seats directly in front of the stage, gradually becoming an ever-larger sea of blue caps and gowns.
“I know I can speak for my classmates when I say that I’m beyond grateful that we could stay in school,” said Jennifer Michaels, one of the Class of 2021’s seven valedictorians, as she welcomed the crowd.
Her words had to have been music to the ears of district superintendent Alex Ayers and school trustees who sat off to her right on the stage. It was that sentiment around which they’d based all of their actions and plans for the school year, reaching back to the summer of 2020 as the district contemplated how best to keep students in schools despite the pandemic.
One of the class’s salutatorians, Danielle Lehnen, and two of its valedictorians, Carson Hanson and Sydney Solum, gave addresses that looked both backward and forward, gave advice and shared collective emotions, and mostly wished their classmates well on their future endeavors.
But the heart of the ceremony was contained in a speech voiced by senior class president Dylan Coleman. He began simply and honestly.
“I used to be afraid of the word ‘graduation,’” Coleman told the crowd. “That sounds silly, but the second I started high school, that word terrified me. You see, at first, graduation meant growing up, leaving, being on your own. When my family moved here to Gillette and I started at Thunder Basin, my sister had just graduated herself, and it felt like we had left her back in Oklahoma.”
He spoke of the dread of seeing classmates graduate and go off to college or careers during his junior year.
“I can count on one hand how many friends I still keep in contact with,” Coleman said.
Those experiences shaped his fear of the word. Then it came for him.
“It was senior year, and suddenly everything got real,” Coleman said. “I was taking college classes. I had early out. I could do whatever I wanted. I was a senior, baby!”
As he described the increasing dread he felt as a senior, Coleman drew on his speech and debate and broadcast skills. It wasn’t just a speech he gave but rather a performance, with modulated pitches and tones, practiced timing and flow. He communicated a feeling that surely was not unique to him. The dread gave way to acceptance.
“Then, the sun rose up today, like any other day,” he said. “I could hear birds singing outside my window. It was calm. And finally, I was able to look at the word for what it was. It’s a calming word. It’s not a word that takes a childhood or a deadly disease that takes away friends; it’s just a word. A word that means beginnings.”
Principal Terry Quinn passed along a simple message to the graduates: Believe in yourself.
He offered support in case that didn’t come easily to them.
“If you find it hard to believe in yourself, maybe it will help to know that we believe in you,” Quinn said. He then repeated himself, to underscore the importance of his message.
Board of trustees chairwoman Anne Ochs accepted the Class of 2021 on behalf of the district, punctuating her speech with a hearty “Go Bolts!” before she took her seat and the calling of the students’ names began.
What followed was a remarkable display of restraint from the crowd as it was surprisingly respectful of the request that it hold its applause until all names had been called. The names were called quickly and efficiently, and the ceremony ran like a well-oiled machine.
After the diplomas had been handed out to the very last student, without prompting the entirety of the Wyoming Center erupted into thunderous applause.
The choir returned to sing “The Climb,” a song made popular by Miley Cyrus. Finally, Coleman returned and led the students in the traditional moving of the tassel from right to left.
In the chaos of the ceremony’s aftermath, Alexander Griffitts hugged his family. As he reflected on the day, he couldn’t help but think about the four years that came before, all spent at TBHS.
“Thunder Basin is a pretty good school,” he said. His favorite part was his engineering classes.
“I had a pretty good teacher,” Griffitts said. He made a lasting impression, because Griffitts wants to study engineering at Gillette College and then go on to eventually be an engineering teacher himself.
Lea Gunderson said there were numerous best parts of the day.
“I guess just wearing the caps and gowns, and meeting all my friends, taking pictures, seeing my family, and all that stuff,” Gunderson said.
She, too, had spent all four years of high school at TBHS, another member of the first class to do so.
“It’s kind of like a mix of emotions,” Gunderson said. “Excitement and sad at the same time. I feel like I’m going to miss all these people.”
Campbell County High School
The second ceremony of the day had a slightly smaller crowd, but the feeling was slightly more raucous.
It’s not as if the CCHS student speakers could have known that ahead of time, but their speeches seemed to match the tone of the evening. They were lighthearted and full of self-deprecating jokes, as well as full of memories and hopes for their classmates’ futures.
“I’m Ramsey Wendt, the always procrastinating, sometimes witty and often emotional representative that was somehow elected as your class president,” Wendt said as the first student to address the crowd.
She used the power of memories to draw laughs from not only the more than 170 of her classmates, but the rest of the audience as well.
“After today, we will no longer have to avoid eye contact with the principals and teachers so they don’t remind us to ‘mask up,’ we will no longer park in the staff parking lot hoping we don’t get a violation sticker from Linda and we will no longer laugh and walk with our friends through the purple doors of our past,” Wendt said.
Rowdy Morman, one of the Class of 2021’s seven salutatorians, began his speech with wit and humor as well.
“Tomorrow I turn 19, and I’m only 5’ 7” so I’ll try to keep this speech as short as I am,” he said.
His speech was not simply a comedy routine though. It contained sage advice to his classmates.
“As you cross the stage today, remember to take time and enjoy the moment, because this is your day and you have finally completed the first part of your lifelong journey,” Morman said.
Rilee Hauber, one of the CCHS senior class’s five valedictorians, continued the mixture of levity and wisdom.
“Writing this speech, I was trying to think of things that have baffled me the past few years,” Hauber said. “I came up with a few ideas: taxes, pre-calc, APA-style formatting, the Dewey Decimal System, but most strange of all was the feeling of senioritis. I then tried to describe the feeling we have all been plagued by for the past few months.
“At first, I couldn’t find anything that even came close to the strange, anxious, excited, size-zero motivation feeling. Then I came across this post on the internet that talks about the feeling a person gets when they’re physically reading a book. When a person enjoys reading, physically holds the book in their hand and reaches the end, they subconsciously realize they are coming to the end. Then, despite how much they enjoy the book, they become anxious about the book and excited that all their questions will be answered. However, a good book will always leave the reader asking questions, and most of mine are still about pre-calc.”
“As we finish this last chapter in this book, we step into the library that is life, where we get to choose our next book and the book after that,” Hauber said. “There are books on any subject you wish to explore. If you want to solve world hunger, explore the world, change your community for the better, be the best in your profession, then there’s the shelf,” she said.
Principal Chad Bourgeois challenged the students to be brave.
“Right outside these walls, as we sit here and celebrate you here today, there are skeptics, there are naysayers, there are hurdles and there are challenges waiting for all of you,” Bourgeois said. “So be confident enough in who you are and where you came from to take the risks that will help you live your best life.”
Trustee Joseph Lawrence accepted the graduates on behalf of the district and concluded his brief speech with “Go Camels!”
The reading of the names went no less smoothly than it had at the earlier graduation ceremony of the day, but it was more individualized. Families and friends often shouted out for their graduates as they were being recognized.
But the biggest difference in the two ceremonies came in the form of a surprise. Smack dab in the middle of the ceremony, just after the first few names that began with an L were called, the familiar flow of things was interrupted. It became clear that something special was happening because it wasn’t just on to the next name.
For when Tashawna Lazzaretti mounted the stage and began to walk across, there was someone she hadn’t seen in over a year-and-a-half waiting on the other side.
It was her brother, Nathaniel Sams, a Specialist/E-4 in the U.S. Army stationed in Fort Campbell, Kentucky. He’d been unable to visit before a deployment to Germany due to COVID-19, and after he returned, he still couldn’t visit due to the pandemic.
But there he was, somehow, across the stage. They walked to each other in the center of the stage and wrapped each other into a big hug. The Wyoming Center rose up and applauded, long and loud.
After the rest of the names had been called, the ceremony ended in an explosive tossing of the caps.
Xander Beeson, Remington Gusick and Colter Rankin stood gathered after the ceremony, all smiles.
“I thought it was going to be kind of bad like last year’s, and it was way better,” Rankin said of the graduation as a whole. He was focused mainly on the fact that they’d been able to have it inside at Cam-plex. When asked the biggest difference between an indoor and outdoor graduation ceremony, he said simply, “Uh, the wind.”
The main takeaway for Beeson was the unexpectedness of his emotions.
“I cried a lot more than I thought I was going to,” he said. “So many tears, for no reason.”
Gusick tried to help him crystallize his thoughts.
“You work so much for something and then it finally comes, and it’s, like, better than expected, I guess,” she said.
Not far away from them stood Sams and Lazzaretti, newly reunited but clearly the shock of the whole thing hadn’t worn off.
“I cried in front of everybody,” Lazzaretti said, as if slightly embarrassed. “It’s crazy,” she said. “He actually got to see me graduate.”
“This has been in the works since the end of April,” Sams said.
Lazzaretti thought something had been different. She felt he hadn’t responded as usual over the past two days, especially on the messaging app Snapchat. He couldn’t send his usual picture messages though. He’d been hiding out at their parents’ house for two days.
“If I would have sent you a Snapchat, you would have known immediately,” Sams told her. “I would have blown everything.”
Luckily for all those in attendance, he didn’t.
On Friday, a district judge denied a motion for a preliminary injunction against a recently passed county resolution that essentially gave 307 Horse Racing control over off-track betting within 100 miles of Gillette.
That means that as of Saturday, the two Wyoming Downs locations in Gillette, as well as the Gillette Horse Palace, had to shut down that part of their businesses.
Because 307 Horse Racing has an exclusive contract with Cam-plex to conduct live horse racing through 2025, that means that if nothing changes, Wyoming Downs and the Horse Palace must remain closed to off-track betting for the next five years.
A few hours after the decision, Eric Nelson, managing member of Wyoming Downs, wrote in an email to the News Record that because of Friday’s decision, “Wyoming Downs may cancel or will reduce (its) season to nothing. All employees in Gillette will lose (their) jobs.”
After listening to hours of testimony and arguments from both sides Friday afternoon and evening, District Judge F. Scott Peasley ruled against Wyoming Horse Racing and Wyoming Downs, which claimed the Campbell County commissioners overstepped their authority. They asked Peasley to delay the resolution so they could remain open.
On April 20, the commissioners passed a resolution that gives the live horse racing operator control over off-track betting and simulcasting in the county. It also allows that written permission for simulcasting and off-track betting can be given to groups that aren’t putting on live horse races.
307 Horse Racing’s first live horse races were held Saturday, meaning that with the resolution, the three off-track betting locations in Gillette can’t operate for the next five years.
Peasley said that based on the limited evidence presented Friday afternoon, he “can’t say the commissioners did not have the right to pass the resolution.”
The plaintiffs’ attorneys cited a 2014 case, Wyoming Downs LLC v. Board of County Commissioners for the County of Sweetwater. In that case, the Sweetwater County Commission denied Wyoming Downs’ request to open an off-track betting location because commissioners wanted to support Wyoming Horse Racing.
Then-Judge Keith Kautz reversed the decision on the grounds that “economic protectionism by itself is not a legitimate state interest.”
Traci Lacock, an attorney representing Wyoming Downs, said the Sweetwater case showed “a desire to protect another competitor from the competition. That’s exactly what’s occurring in this current action.”
Attorney John Sundahl, representing the county commissioners, argued that the claim that the commissioners wrote and passed this resolution to favor 307 Horse Racing over the other two operators is false.
He said there is a “huge distinction” between the two cases. In the Sweetwater case, it was clear that one company was being favored over another, Sundahl said. With Campbell County’s resolution, because it doesn’t name any specific operator, there is only one way to interpret it.
“The only reading is that it is neutral. It doesn’t favor anybody,” he said. “Anyone can come in and institute OTBs under that resolution.”
While the resolution does not name any live horse racing operator, 307 Horse Racing signed an exclusive five-year contract last year to hold live horse races at Cam-plex, essentially making it the only company that can do off-track betting here.
Eugene Joyce, president of Wyoming Horse Racing, said that while no names are mentioned, the resolution “sure as heck favors one company over another,” and that the commissioners passed it “knowing full well that 307 (Horse Racing) had an exclusive contract.”
Commissioner Colleen Faber, who drafted the resolution, said she did not know 307’s contract was exclusive until the April 20 meeting where the resolution was passed.
Tom Thompson, another attorney representing the commissioners, said the resolution does not prevent Joyce from building another race track in Gillette. That would allow him to do off-track betting here.
“Nobody, and I mean nobody on this planet, is going to build another race track in Campbell County,” Joyce said, adding that it would cost as much as $30 million.
Thompson asked if there was anything prohibiting Joyce from building a race track in Gillette.
“Common sense,” Joyce said.
“Anything else?” Thompson asked.
“Common sense,” Joyce said again.
Peasley agreed with the defense’s argument that the resolution is not choosing favorites because no specific names are included. He did not see it as an example of “economic protectionism,” as the businesses tried to argue.
As a publicly elected board, the commission has “the right to make a decision that it believes in the best interest of the county,” Sundahl said.
“The potential irreparable harm is extraordinary,” Lacock said.
From dozens of employees losing their jobs to Wyoming Downs and Wyoming Horse Racing losing the customer base and good will they’ve built up in the community over the better part of a decade, the companies will suffer from the resolution, Lacock said.
Eric Nelson, managing member of Wyoming Downs, said that if the two Gillette locations shut down, “25% of our revenue would be lost,” and it would have to lay people off and reduce the number of live horse racing days it has in other parts of the state.
“If you’re forced to close and then reopen, will it injure your reputation? No question,” he said.
“Why should the entities that are here, paying taxes, why should they be shut down when there’s no harm to the other side?” asked Matt Micheli, an attorney representing Wyoming Horse Racing.
It costs a lot of money to train employees, Nelson said, and if they’re out of a job, “it’s not like they work at Burger King and they can walk across the street to McDonald’s.”
“You shouldn’t believe that there is irreparable damage that can’t be remedied,” Sundahl said. “That’s not true. Loss of jobs isn’t irreparable damages, expending money isn’t irreparable damages.”
There’s nothing prohibiting former employees of Wyoming Downs and Wyoming Horse Racing from applying to work for 307 Horse Racing, he said.
Joyce, who conducted live horse racing at Cam-plex from 2015-19, said he was ready to hold races at Morningside Park in June 2020, but then COVID hit. He also had been working to extend his contract with Cam-plex.
He’d hoped to get alternate dates in August and September, but then Cam-plex told him those dates were no longer available because of an exclusive contract with another horse racing operator.
Joyce said he didn’t like how the whole thing went down, and that if Cam-plex allowed it, “I’d be back there in a heartbeat.”
“Why not have no contract with anyone and have Cam-plex put an RFP?” Joyce asked, referencing a bid process for live horse racing at the facility.
Not put on notice
The plaintiffs argued that they didn’t receive proper notice that the commissioners would take action on the resolution at their April 20 meeting. Nelson said he didn’t find out until the night before, and he was not able to make the meeting. Joyce said a lobbyist called him saying there was a rumor that the commissioners were going to shut down his OTB locations in Gillette.
County Commissioner Del Shelstad said he talked to Joyce on April 16, the Friday before the meeting, and that Joyce brought up the resolution at that time.
“Our (county) attorney was trying to facilitate a meeting between the operators,” Shelstad said, adding that Joyce asked for that meeting to happen before the commissioners took action on the resolution.
Thompson said the fact that Joyce was able to show up to the meeting and participate is proof that proper notice was given.
A meeting was held April 26 with all three operators with the hopes of reaching an agreement. Nelson said that in that meeting, he “made no effort” to reach a solution and that if the resolution wasn’t rescinded, he would file a lawsuit.
“I didn’t want to get taken into a place that I thought was illegal,” he said.
In 2013 and 2014, the commission approved Wyoming Downs and Wyoming Horse Racing to do off-track betting here. Micheli said that it is the only power the commissioners have in this area and that they cannot just take away approval once it’s given.
“The power to grant includes, by necessity, the power to change … the power to revoke and the power to replace,” Sundahl said. “This is, quite simply, a legitimate exercise of legislative authority.”
If the court interferes with that legislative decision, Sundahl said that “takes us into a slippery slope, which is frightening.”
Nelson said he’s “very concerned” about investing in anything at Cam-plex, because the commissioners “could shut me down at any point.”
The resolution goes against opinions by the Wyoming Attorney General’s Office and the Wyoming Gaming Commission and sets a dangerous precedent, Micheli said, one where individual counties can choose to shut down out-of-county companies to favor their local businesses.
“If we pit counties against each other, the system could collapse,” he said.