Caps and Gowns and a Great Big Screen as a Wisconsin Class Graduates at a Drive-In
Hundreds of vehicles pack Field of Scenes drive-in movie theater in Freedom for the Freedom High School graduation ceremony on May 31. Rather than cancel or postpone the ceremony, school staff hosted it at the drive-in. (Photo by Jonathon Sadowski)

Freedom High School throws a graduation the Class of 2020 will never forget.

It was mid-March. Coronavirus had reached Wisconsin and Gov. Tony Evers had just shuttered schools for a few weeks, a closure that would later be indefinitely extended

To high school seniors in Freedom, a small town between Appleton and Green Bay, the writing was on the wall: There would be no normal graduation.

“A majority of the kids, they didn’t even know how to react,” said Reeve Lambrecht, the Freedom High School Class of 2020 president, football team quarterback, and co-valedictorian who will attend UW-La Crosse in the fall.

Reeve Lambrecht, who just graduated as a co-valedictorian from Freedom High School, had his ceremony at the local Field of Scenes drive-in movie theater. (Photo by Jonathon Sadowski)

As schools around the country moved to hold their graduation ceremonies virtually, or to postpone in-person ceremonies to a later date, Freedom High School principal Kurt Erickson saw news reports about a Maine high school that was holding its graduation at a local drive-in movie theater. 

Freedom is home to one of just eight remaining drive-in theaters in Wisconsin, so Erickson and school staff saw the opportunity to give the 120 outgoing seniors as normal of a graduation as possible.

“They missed out on a lot,” Erickson said. “…They’re a good class, they really are. I feel so bad for them.”

So Erickson and his staff worked with the Field of Scenes drive-in theater in Freedom to host a drive-in ceremony on the originally scheduled date. Seniors went to school last month to record themselves individually crossing the stage and receiving their diploma, and eight students recorded speeches (there were a record 16 co-valedictorians with GPAs of 4.0 or above). The recordings were edited together and shown May 31 at Field of Scenes as families packed into the theater’s parking lot while maintaining a safe distance.

While it certainly wasn’t traditional, the graduation was unlike anything any other class is likely to experience.

“I think it’s something we will definitely remember for the rest of our lives, that we will tell our kids and grandkids someday,” said Karissa Wurster, a co-valedictorian who will attend the University of Wisconsin-Platteville for mechanical engineering in the fall.

Karissa Wurster, who just graduated as a co-valedictorian from Freedom High School, had her ceremony at the local Field of Scenes drive-in movie theater. (Photo by Jonathon Sadowski)

Faced with the prospect of a drive-in graduation, students were divided about 50-50, Erickson said. Some wanted to postpone in order to have an in-person ceremony later in the summer. But Erickson said many kids would not want to show up after they have been free of school for a few months.

“Some of our neighboring schools, they simply changed the date,” he said. “The problem with that is, they’re not the same kid in August as they are right now.”

Hundreds of cars filled the theater on graduation day, some adorned with messages of solidarity and congratulations, others affixed with balloons in the school colors of green and gold.

“I’d say it’s definitely better than having nothing,” said Nathan Wolf, a co-valedictorian and robotics whiz who will attend Michigan Technological University in the fall. “It’s cool we’re able to do this.”

Wolf drove his vintage six-wheel army truck to the ceremony. In the back were Lambrecht and a handful of other friends, much to the disapproval of Erickson, who had to use the theater’s intercom to order people back into their vehicles “for safety reasons that should be obvious to us all.”

Apart from Wolf’s truck and a few other people who at first ignored social distancing guidelines, the ceremony went exactly as planned.

“We decided it’s a weird time everywhere; it’s something we could do to help out these kids in graduation, with something to remember, “ said Taylor VandeWettering, co-owner of Field of Scenes.

The theater let Freedom High hold its graduation there for free, Erickson said. But Freedom High was not the only school to have a ceremony at Field of Scenes. Bellin College in Bellevue had its graduation there in mid-May and two other local high schools would do the same, VandeWettering said.

While not everyone was pleased with the outcome, Erickson said the class was resilient. Just outside the school’s front doors is a large rock on which each outgoing senior class gets to paint their names and special messages.

Among the messages written on the sides: “Senior Strong 2020” and “Corona can’t stop us!”

“As time goes on and we work on resolve rather than victimhood, they’ll never forget this,” Erickson said.