BELTON — At the Shoemaker High School graduation Saturday, 412 students stepped across the stage to receive their diploma and one new graduate stepped into the embrace of his soldier father.

Tyler Dorr received his diploma and stepped down the stairs from the stage of the Bell County Expo Center arena as his father, dressed in fatigues, stepped from behind a television monitor.

The son recognized Sgt. 1st Class Wayne Dorr and the two hugged, prompting a surge of applause through the crowded arena.

The soldier received leave from a deployment to Korea to attend the graduation and he and his wife, Michelle Dorr, managed to keep the reunion a secret until the emotional moment.

It was a big day for hundreds of graduates. “It’s surreal,” said salutatorian Bryanna Briley as she and her classmates prepared in the assembly hall to parade into the spacious arena.

“We’ve spent all this time getting here and it will be over so fast,” she said.

“Extremely nervous” is how valedictorian Jeremy Wall described his emotions preparing for the start of the ceremony. “I’m excited to get a move on.” Wall told his classmates in his address that he wasn’t the best student to represent the group, but said they shared a common commitment to dedicate themselves to a cause.

The top graduate encouraged his classmate to define their dedications, whether music, art, academic pursuits or other interests and to apply their efforts to all they do.

He and Briley both pointed out the importance of counting on supporters. “You have help among your friends sitting here with you and those in the stands,” Wall said in reference to the family, friends and educators in the building.

The salutatorian described life as a learning experience and said success starts with self, but that we all need help along the way.

“It’s not shameful to ask for help,” she said. “It shows wisdom.”

She described her own lessons to lean on others for support as she progressed through school, taking on more rigorous classes and extracurricular responsibilities. “No one can dictate how high you can soar,” Briley said. “You have to look in the mirror and allow yourself to grow.”

Wayne Dorr spent the first part of the graduation ceremony seated backstage watching the ceremony on a television screen.

He said he returned home from Korea two days earlier and stayed in a hotel with his two daughters, ages 5 and 9, not believing they could keep the secret from their big brother.

The soldier dad was just happy to be home to experience the graduation in person. He said he remembered missing his son’s kindergarten graduation and scores of other events over three deployments in his 18-year military career.

He said his wife planned surprises every time he returned, but the timing never worked until Saturday’s high school graduation.

“I was not expecting this,” Tyler Dorr said as he learned the details of his parents’ schemes after receiving his diploma. “It was good. It’s been a good day.”

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