HAMMONTON - In common metaphors for life, we cross bridges and come to forks in the road, Salutatorian Gabrielle Pullia said at Hammonton High School's graduation Wednesday night.

"There's always a way to redirect and find a new path," said the Hammonton resident, encouraging the 350 students in her class to be courageous about changing directions and trying new endeavors.

The huge crowd of family and friends filled two sets of bleachers on the football field and spilled out along the edges of the field. The general mood was one of celebration. But there was also an awareness of the loss of classmate Christopher Goodwin, of Hammonton, an honor student and track star who died May 26 in a car accident.

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Valedictorian Haley Wendt, of Hammonton, said her classmates had told her theirs is the most strongly unified of any class.

"We have persevered through the rough times," she said.

She also acknowledged the bittersweet nature of the night for many parents.

"Our families sit in the bleachers, still remembering our first day of school, when we didn't want them to go home," Wendt said. "They are now the ones struggling to let go."

Principal Thomas Ramsay said the Class of 2013 is the first for which he has been principal for all four years.

"I have children at home, but I also have 1,450 other children who are very special to me who attend this high school," he said.

He said his main piece of advice was to "pay it forward," or give to others the kind of help they have received from family, teachers and the community when the opportunity arises.

Ramsay said the class is receiving $2.7 million in scholarships from colleges and universities.

Salutatorian Pullia talked about recently opening her second-grade time capsule and finding all of the drawings that were so important to her then, when she thought she would become an artist. But as she grew up, she had to rethink that dream, she said, and re-evaluate her goals. Her artistic talent wasn't quite what she'd need to succeed in art, she said.

Now she plans a business career, and is headed to the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania.

Christopher Goodwin's parents attended the ceremony and sat on the field in a place of honor. Their son's diploma was the last to be awarded, right after the valedictorian's.

Dave Goodwin said he wasn't aware his son's diploma would be given at the end, and found the gesture moving.

"It eats you inside," said Tracey, Christopher's mother. "But we're still proud of him."

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