- Associated Press - Monday, March 13, 2017

LA CROSSE, Wis. (AP) - Jaclyn Dahl flashed her trademark smile and sharp wit during the supremely bittersweet moment of her high school graduation Monday, saying, “You know I’m valedictorian, right, Dad?”

Her dad, Jack, who is not expected to live long enough to see his 18-year-old graduate with her De Soto High School classmates May 26, was the first to laugh, but was joined quickly by the 60 to 70 people attending the specially arranged early graduation ceremony at Gundersen Health System, the La Crosse Tribune (https://bit.ly/2mxzssM ) reported.

The event was a cooperative venture of Gundersen, where Jack has been hospitalized for three weeks after a year of off-and-on treatments there and at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and De Soto School District administrators and staffers.

The ceremony, which evoked tears several times and laughter at others, featured a De Soto High School commencement program - except that the date was March 6. The De Soto High Wind Ensemble played “Pomp and Circumstance” as Jaclyn, wearing cap and gown, walked down steps from Gundersen’s lobby to the lower level.

She embraced, kissed and took a seat next to her dad, who is 62 and is suffering from metastatic cholangiocarcinoma, a rare cancer that affects the bile ducts and is known for very low survival rates and short life expectancy after diagnosis. Sitting in a recliner, Jack was tethered by tubes and wires to medication and monitoring devices next to him.

Class President Sierra Tully delivered the welcome, declaring that the ceremony was a recognition of the seniors’ hard work and dedication. Sixteen of Jaclyn’s 44 classmates attended the event, which included relatives, friends and Gundersen staffers.

Vocal music teacher Craig Pierce addressed the commencement crowd, beginning by quoting Sharon Ralls Lemon, author of “The Ultimate Horse Book,” to acknowledge one of the key bonds between Jack and Jaclyn.

The quote - “The essential joy of being with horses is that it brings us in contact with the rare elements of grace, beauty, spirit and freedom” - is a reflection of Jaclyn’s attributes, Pierce said.

He chronicled many of her characteristics, as other teachers had passed on to him, including the fashion sense one of the school’s cooks mentioned, the perpetual smile a science teacher admires and a gym teacher’s praise of her sharp wit, with the occasional touch of humorous sarcasm. Other traits include a strong devotion to and defense of her friends, and her own personal strength and thoughtfulness.

“Jaclyn truly loves her dad,” Pierce said. “We have all seen Jaclyn’s care for her dad,” which included giving up many of her high school activities to drive him to treatments.

“I’ve learned from Jaclyn that we can all be strong,” Pierce said.

After the De Soto High School Choir performed Tim McGraw’s heartwarming “Humble and Kind,” social studies teacher Tim Fergot and school board member Rick Pedretti presented Jaclyn with her provisional diploma.

Stepping to the microphone, Jaclyn choked up bit as she acknowledged that she hadn’t planned or prepared to deliver remarks herself.

Then followed the joke she aimed at her dad about being valedictorian before she said, emotionally, “Thank you all for coming. It means a lot. It’s been a tough road . and I couldn’t have done it without you - especially my dad.”

After a pause, she told Jack, “You made me the girl I am today,” pausing ever so slightly again before adding with a smile, “and I think I turned out pretty awesome.”

The comment that evoked laughter and applause through the crowd.

Superintendent and principal Linzi Gronning also spoke before declaring Jaclyn a graduate and granted her permission to move the tassel from one side of the mortarboard to the other.

Jaclyn played the role to the hilt, tossing her cap high into the air.

Gronning smiled at Jacklyn’s valedictory joke, adding that technically, she was, indeed, valedictorian for a day - being the only graduate Monday.

When Gronning asked whether anyone else wanted to comment, before the two cakes decorated with “Congratulations, Jaclyn” were cut and the party began, Jack spoke up firmly, saying, “I do.”

He praised school officials, students and Gundersen personnel - in particular the nurses, staff and doctors who had worked so quickly to pull off the event since the idea came up last week.

Earlier, Gundersen staffer Sue La Crosse had explained during an interview that the event reflected Gundersen’s slogan: “We Practice Love + Medicine.”

“What is best for our patients sometimes goes above and beyond,” La Crosse said.

“This is incredible,” Jack said. “I’ve got a big family, and Jaclyn has a lot of great friends. I hear about them all the time, although I don’t know all of them.

“In the days I’ve got left,” he said, “this will be a good memory.

“She’ll go on with her future. I’m not worried about her - as long as she keeps her horses.”

___

Information from: La Crosse Tribune, https://www.lacrossetribune.com

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