Hundreds of Evanston Township High School seniors packed Lazier Field Thursday afternoon, picking up their yearbooks, grabbing snacks from a food truck and collectively exhaling that they made it through the entire school year without a COVID-19-forced interruption.

“Sometimes I wondered if we would actually have a regular senior year,” said Ian Bryan, who is college-bound for the University of Kentucky.

Ian and his friend J.J. Chehab were in the yearbook line at Senior Sendoff, a two-hour fun and food farewell following the last day classes for seniors at ETHS.

“My older brother was in the Class of 2020,” said J.J. “No prom, no graduation” (not in person, anyway), thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.

J.J. was a sophomore when Illinois schools closed in March 2020 for remote instruction.

“I expected to be back here earlier” than April 2021, when in-person school finally resumed, he added.

J.J. is headed for the University of Alabama. He and Ian grew up as next-door neighbors. Soon they’ll be going their separate ways, although they’ll stay connected through Southeastern Conference athletics. J.J. gets the edge in football, Ian in basketball.

Hugh Palin is headed for Big Ten country, at the Univesity of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign.

Hugh opened his yearbook to get a special signature — from Dr. Eric Witherspoon, the soon-to-be-retiring superintendent.

ETHS Superintendent Eric Witherspoon signs yearbook for graduating senior Hugh Palin.

Getting that signature “was definitely on my bucket list,” Hugh said. “I couldn’t end my senior year without it.”

Witherspoon’s retirement takes effect June 30, following 16 years at the helm of District 202.

“I remember March 13, 2020,” Witherspoon said, when the schools went on remote learning due to COVID.

While some expected in-person school to resume right after spring break, “I thought it would be longer,” Witherspoon said. But “I didn’t know how much longer.”

Witherspoon praised the nearly 900 seniors for succeeding despite having neither a normal sophomore or junior year.

“They’re leaders,” he said. “They set the pace and helped everyone else survive.”

Graduation for the Class of 2022 is May 22, at Northwestern University.

For Eric Witherspoon, it will be his last graduation ceremony as ETHS superintendent.

“I’m now part of the Class of 2022 as well,” he said.

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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