Last Friday evening, it was cold out at Grand Junction’s small airport and so dark you couldn’t see the imposing mesas just beyond the runway. Flood lights illuminated a sleek jet, all 58 feet of it, and a group from Colorado Mesa University walking its way.
"This is pretty surreal, to be honest with you," said CMU Vice President John Marshall. "I mean, I guess no more surreal than anything else this year, right?"
Just hours earlier, 60 people — friends and families of soon-to-be graduates — got tested for COVID-19 last-minute in the hopes of attending graduation the next day. For that to be possible, however, those tests needed to get on this plane. Marshall was one of the passengers accompanying the precious cargo to a lab on the other side of the state, with the clock ticking. Marshall explained this fast flight should ensure the results came in time for the next day's two ceremonies. But first, they had to get to Loveland.
"In some ways, it's sort of a joyful, crazy ending to a crazy year, right?" he said, boarding the plane.
Graduation is something most students dream about for years, but due to the pandemic, countless colleges have had to cancel, postpone or move cereomies online this year. The University of Colorado Boulder, the largest college in the state, recently announced all its commencements will stay virtual through at least May.
But CMU took a different approach. Marshall and others decided everyone in attendance could still walk with their families in attendance, as long as the guests and the graduates stayed socially distant and wore masks. The school also decided to test every single graduate, faculty member and guest planning to be at Friday's two ceremonies. Some of those people, however, were unable to get a test until the afternoon before the graduations, not enough time to normally get the results.
That's where the private jet comes in.
While it might sound like a drastic solution, Grand Junction is isolated — nearly 300 miles and one big mountain pass away from the testing facility in Loveland.
With the box of COVID-19 tests secured on the jet, the CMU crew buckled up. There were some giddy laughs as the plane accelerated for takeoff, and then the few lights from the community below disappeared.
At one point in the flight, the group looked out their windows and saw snow rolling in.
"If we had to drive the tests tonight, I don't know that they would have got there," said Emma Leenerman, who coordinates CMU's testing program.
After only about half an hour in the air, the plane, its passengers and the tests landed in Loveland. As they handed off the box of vials, everyone was excited, even the scientist from Warrior Diagnostics about to get down to work testing them.
The pilot, CMU instructor Erling Brabaek, grinned in his Santa hat. He saved Christmas, someone joked.
"Ah, no!" Brabaek happily countered, in his Danish accent. "No, we all saved Christmas."
That includes the man who donated the jet, Kevin Davis, with Western Slope Auto, a local car dealership.
"I hope the students appreciate it," he said, adding that he hopes they "go out and make a difference in the world."
Davis dropped out of high school decades ago, but he eventually got his business degree from CMU. It means a lot to him that a large portion of these students are the first in their families to graduate college.
"For sure, I am too. It's a big deal," he said. "It's pretty exciting."
After just a few hours, the testing was done. Of the 60 tests on the flight, all but three came back negative. For those who tested positive, the ceremony was made available to stream online.
‘I Don’t Want To Cry Right Now, But We’ve Been Through A Lot’
The chilly air was charged with excitement the next morning for graduation, when a few hundred guests spread out in a stadium that holds 8,000. They clapped, cheered and occasionally blew air horns as each graduate received a diploma and a gloved first bump from the school's president. The local health department gave the event the green light — as long as no one threw their cap up in the air. Officials thought pawing through a bunch of caps lying on the ground could be a health risk.
After a short ceremony, 26-year-old graduate Linford Ocloo walked back to the stands and waved up at his mom.
"I don't want to cry right now, but we've been through a lot," he said, tears filing his eyes. "Thank you, God!"
His mother, Constance Garvie, soon made her way down to her son. Originally from Ghana, she beams about his accomplishment.
"I'm really, really happy. It's a long journey," she said. "And hey, it's been a tough year, but at the end of the year, we’re still happy."
Graduates started to file out of the stadium and into the parking lot, where a vintage truck greeted them with a sign in its bed congratulating the class of 2020. Plenty stopped for pictures.
After a man and woman in their early 20s smiled for outstretched cell phones, the man dropped to one knee and presented a ring. Through tears, she said yes. Minutes later, newly engaged Celeste Tovar tried to describe what she felt.
“I-I, a lot of things,” she said, dabbing her eyes. “I’m crying and I’m laughing and it doesn’t feel real!”
Her brand-new fiance, Blair Kratzer, admitted he was a little nervous beforehand, especially during the ceremony.
“The whole time, it was in the back of my head,” he said with a laugh. “I was like, ‘I’m getting a diploma today! I’m going to propose!’’
If the graduation had been called off, like so many have been this year, Kratzer would have figured something else out.
“Do a Zoom proposal or something,” he joked.
But he and his future wife said they felt lucky to be right there with their families, celebrating two monumental milestones — in person.