‘I must go.’ Legendary coach John Harder bids farewell to Southeast High graduates

Coach Harder delivers final graduation speech before retirement

Students of Southeast High School rejoice as John Harder delivers a graduation speech on May 18, 2019.
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Students of Southeast High School rejoice as John Harder delivers a graduation speech on May 18, 2019.

When the students of Southeast High School graduated on Saturday morning, a beloved face joined in their excitement and uncertainty.

John Harder, wearing black regalia over his iconic blazer and basketball tie, offered a vision to hundreds of students at the Bradenton Area Convention Center, one day before his 71st birthday. Harder will soon retire from the school after coaching basketball and teaching social studies for decades.

“I’m about to put the last lesson on the chalkboard, one that we’ll do together this time,” he said. “We’ll take baby steps, they’ll grow into strides. Eventually they’ll be footprints — footprints that you’re going to leave for others to follow, as great Americans have done for you.”

It can be hard to face change after doing the same thing for a long period of time, whether it be four years or 36 years. But faith and determination will guide the graduates into a new chapter of life, he said, urging the students to embrace their jitters.

“It’s time for the next adventure,” he said. “Time has caught up to me — I must go. Are you filled with the same anxiety that I am? Even a little bit of fear. I’m not exactly sure what to do come August.”

Surely the students weren’t always on time for class, and most never experienced perfect grades or even a clean disciplinary record, but they all persevered. And with the same perseverance, they could bring healing and positivity to the country, Harder said.

He went on to make a request, asking the graduates to honor their family name and better the world.

“I want you to take that name into your own hall of fame,” he said. “I want you to make your family proud, the administration, the faculty, your fellow students, but especially you — inside, every day.”

In the end, his 12-minute speech evoked two standing ovations and plenty of tears among the guests, and perhaps himself. Harder capped off a string of commencement speeches by this year’s “Gold Feather” recipients, shining examples of the leadership he envisioned.

Southeast High girls basketball coach John Harder discusses his legacy after his final game.

Cassandra Atzrodt reflected on generations of family members who sacrificed their own comfort to pave the way for her hard work and success. In a school as diverse as Southeast, many students can relate to stories of immigration, hardship and family bonds, she said.

Maybe that’s why Saturday’s graduates were known for their selfless nature and acceptance of others, she continued.

“The piece of paper we’re going to receive doesn’t even begin to encompass the history and the people we leave behind, or the community we formed together,” Atzrodt said.

The school’s diversity helped Elijah Gelongo come to accept himself. Speaking at Saturday’s ceremony, Gelongo said there was a time when being quirky or unique seemed like an infraction of society’s rules.

That was before he enrolled at Southeast. Family taught Gelongo to remember his roots, and the school taught him to love those roots.

The Seminoles staged a comeback in the fourth quarter to give Harder his milestone victory, which comes in his 34th season at Southeast High.

“I ride for you, because you are where I come from,” he said to the graduates. “Over these past four years, you have become part of my heritage.”

In his own speech, Austin Jenkins quoted an inspirational writer from the 1900’s: “Adversity causes some men to break, others to break records.”

Jenkins cast aside his self-doubt and discovered an unfamiliar confidence during his time at Southeast. Overcoming adversity is often a reward in itself, he said, encouraging the graduates to persevere after Saturday’s ceremony.

“Keep creating goals and pursuing your dreams,” he said. “Class of 2019, it’s been an honor.”