Baccalaureate services offer blessings, challenge

by W. Winston Skinner


Students fill pews for the Newnan High School Baccalaureate service at First Baptist Church of Newnan on Sunday. 

(Editor’s note: Northgate High School will hold the first of the graduations for Coweta County’s three public high schools, on Thursday. For a list of Northgate candidates for graduation, see page 12. )

“Every person who makes a difference must have a vision of the future that they want to create,” Dr. Gene Tyre told high school graduates.

“You have the future before you. It’s filled with opportunities,” Tyre said at Newnan High School’s Baccalaureate service on Sunday. Tyre encouraged each of the graduates to have a vision that “reflects your goals and your values.”

Tyre, who is now pastor at Providence Baptist Church in Rico, returned to First Baptist Church of Newnan for the service – speaking from the pulpit that was his for 23 years. Tyre told the students and congregation that Baccalaureate offers a time “to celebrate your accomplishments and express thanks to God for … this great time of celebration.”

All three Coweta County Baccalaureate services were held Sunday at 2 p.m. Northgate’s service was as Crossroads Church, while East Coweta’s was held at the Centre for Performing and Visual Arts.

At the service at First Baptist, Tyre mentioned great figures from history – Thomas Edison, Abraham Lincoln, Douglas MacArthur, Martin Luther King – who kept working toward lofty goals in spite of difficulties. Tyre then focused his remarks on three Newnan High graduates – Rob Estes, Vernon Strickland and Nick Whitlock.

“I have learned so many lessons from students such as you,” said Tyre, longtime chaplain of the Newnan High Cougar football team.

“You will be part of a great heritage,” he told the Newnan High graduates. He described Estes, Strickland and Whitlock as “individuals who never, ever, ever gave up on their dreams or their visions.”

Estes, a successful Newnan businessman, was diagnosed with a brain tumor “a couple of years ago,” Tyre related. “The tests revealed a very aggressive form of cancer.”

Estes has “a strong will” and “a strong, strong faith.” He and his wife, Christi, have established the Can’t Never Could Foundation to help others. The Scripture verse theme for the foundation is Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.”

Estes was inspired by that verse while a high school football player. He heard it at a pre-game devotional led by Tyre. The verse dovetailed with a frequent saying Estes had heard from his mother: “Rob, can’t never could.”

“Each day, Rob is in a battle, but I want you to know he will never, ever give up,” Tyre said.

Strickland and Whitlock also played football at Newnan High. Strickland suffered with leukemia as a child. “He was told he would never play football, but he didn’t believe it.”

Strickland played football – as a 150-pound defensive end – at Newnan High. He walked on to the team at the Georgia Institute of Technology and was briefly on the roster of the San Francisco 49ers.

Tyre related that when Strickland was in high school, he was driving one night in bad weather and had an accident. His younger sister, a passenger in the vehicle, was killed.

Tyre and Coach Max Bass went to the hospital, and Tyre was asked to tell Strickland about his sister. When Strickland saw the pastor, he told him he knew why he had come. “He reached up, and he took my hand, and he said, ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengtheneth me,’” Tyre related.

Strickland is now a successful attorney in Atlanta. “I see him from time to time, and I’m always blessed when I see him,” Tyre said.

“Most of you today remember Nick,” Tyre said. Whitlock played football and baseball at NHS and had a dream of becoming a pilot.

Whitlock got a scholarship to Mercer University. “Nick was an outstanding student at Mercer, and he made the university community proud,” Tyre said.

Whitlock became a U.S. Air Force pilot. While flying toward Djibouti in Africa, he was killed in action in February 2012. Whitlock Field at the Newnan-Coweta Airport is named for him.

“All over the county, Nick lives on. He lives on because he lived by Philippians 4:13,” Tyre said.

Tyre said all three men surrounded themselves with positive, affirming people who saw their visions and encouraged them to persevere. “The connections you make with others will enable you to never, never, never give up,” Tyre said.

He told the graduates that America needs them. “We’ve lost the vision to be a compassionate people,” Tyre said.

“Your generation has an opportunity to help us once again find a vision for an America that is so powerful – that is so compassionate – that is draws all of us together,” Tyre said. He said people will be able “to trace your steps by the light you leave behind.”

Tyre urged the students to walk with Christ and feel the assurance that they never walk alone. Jesus, he asserted, “walks with us.”

In addition to sermons aimed at the graduates and student readings and music, the local Baccalaureate services included greetings from host pastors and congregational singing.

Offering prayers or reading Scripture at Newnan High’s Baccalaureate were Elizabeth Abercrombie, Hannah Hudson, Michael Miller and Rachel Starnes. The NHS Senior Ensemble, under the direction of Mrs. Elizabeth Robbins, Newnan High choral director, sang “Seasons of Love.”

For Northgate’s Baccalaureate, Drew Karschner brought the message. Karschner is high school pastor at Crossroads. Student participants were Jason Abraham, Shelby Edmonds and Nicole Mininger.

Praise Band members – Rachel Adornato, Becca Cox, Andrew Kelley, Maggie Schiffert, Tori Vinson and Doug Williams – sang at the service for Northgate seniors.

East Coweta’s Baccalaureate typically features a sermon from a different local pastor each year. Shawn Smith of Southcrest Church spoke this year – using the biblical story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 as a template for students to use their talents in life.

The Cullen Trio sang at East Coweta’s service. Each of the triplets – Christian, Carly and Cameron Cullen – shared a prayer and Bible verse, as well. Christian Cullen is East Coweta’s senior class president.

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