By MARK RICE, Ledger Investigator
COLUMBUS, Ga. (AP) — Suffering from liver and bile duct cancer, Mike Bowden was unable to attend Russell County High School‘s Class of 2022 ceremony to see his son Michael graduate. But with the extra efforts of his family and school administrators, a special ceremony was held at the home in Bowden, eastern Alabama, where father and son celebrated the milestone together.
Mike died two weeks later – and two weeks before the official graduation ceremony. In email interviews with the Ledger-Enquirer, Jessie Bowden, Michael’s mother and Mike’s wife, shared this story, along with school principal Tonya Keene.
While speaking with her sister, Jackie Sharpe, Jessie lamented that Mike wasn’t healthy enough to attend the graduation. Sharpe suggested contacting a school administrator to find out what could be done to accommodate the family’s situation.
Jessie emailed assistant manager Christopher Baker and asked if she could borrow a cap and dress to have their own ceremony at home. “And to push my luck,” Jessie said, “would he consider handing Michael a fake diploma in front of his dad?”
Baker called Jessie the next day to tell her the good news: the administration agreed to accommodate her request and make it a surprise. “It was a team idea to try to do more,” Keene said.
On April 25, cars began lining up outside the Bowden family home in the eastern Alabama community of Seale. Mike was lying in a portable bed in the den, where a sign reads, “Bless this house with love and laughter.”
Jessie took out the balloons she had hidden. Keene, assistant principals Baker, Nisa Guice and Samantha Shoup, senior adviser Akeisha Valrie and Michael’s auto shop teacher Mark Saxon – all dressed in graduation gowns – entered while a recording of “Pomp and Circumstance” was played.
“My husband was completely impressed,” Jessie said. Jessie said, “Mike Bowden, you’re invited to Michael David Bowden Jr’s graduation.” Tears welled up in Mike’s eyes.
“He didn’t know what to say,” Jessie said, “but the look on his face was priceless.” Keene presented Michael with his real diploma in front of Mike.
“I started crying and felt so humbled that we were invited to such a private but important time in the family home,” she said.
Michael declined to share his thoughts on the ceremony, but Jessie spoke on behalf of the family when she said, “The team that came to our house couldn’t have made it more special.”
Keene explained why they did it.
“It was the right thing to do,” she said. “All of our kids are working hard to reach graduation, and our parents/families are incredibly supportive, and they deserve to be able to celebrate with us.”
Keene also saw the ceremony as a boost for the school administration.
“So often we get caught up in the day-to-day stresses of work or how administrators and teachers are attacked via social media and society,” she said, “…and that melted it all . This, THIS, is why we do this. This centered us all on our purpose and our mission field.
Seeing his son graduate motivated Mike to keep fighting for a living, Jessie said.
“My heart was about to burst with pride, happiness and sorrow, knowing that was the only thing keeping my husband here,” she said.
Mike died May 9 at home. He was 64 years old. After working for 25 years as a carpenter, Mike worked his last 12 years as a machine technician at Campbell Snacks.
“We were together for 21 years in total,” said Jessie, who works part-time as an assistant at the Elizabeth Robinson Surgical Clinic. “He was truly my soul mate. My heart will never be the same. He suffered for a long time. He was afraid to leave us. He was not ready to die. Cancer stole him from us.
This special graduation ceremony, however, shone in the darkness of the family.
“I know he died a very proud dad,” she said.
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