ULYSSES — Braxton Moral, 17, collected his Ulysses High School diploma Sunday afternoon, but absent from the gymnasium were his two biggest boosters, parents Carlos and Julie Moral.
His mother and perhaps his father, also, could miss his precedent-setting graduation from Harvard University on May 30, too, when he will be the first student to concurrently earn a high school diploma and a four-year bachelor's degree from Harvard. Julie Moral has been on the wait list for a kidney transplant for nearly a year and received the call Tuesday that a match had been found. The transplant surgery took place Wednesday at the University of Kansas Medical Center.
Braxton Moral was briefly in Kansas City last week but returned to Ulysses. He is expected to go back to Kansas City this week.
"It's hard to be unhappy with the blessings we have now" young Moral said Saturday night when asked about the absence of his parents at a pre-graduation party and at commencement. His mother was where she needed to be, he said.
In the gym of the Ulysses High Tigers, where orange Class 4A sports banners hang from the ceiling, families and friends celebrated the 102 seniors participating in commencement Sunday.
Clad in black caps and gowns, the Class of 2019 marched in two by two to "Pomp and Circumstance." Moral sat in the last row of seniors and near one end. His siblings and their families, his great aunt and great uncle Sandy and Joe Kennedy, Great Bend, and his grandfather, Roy Williams, who lives in the Ulysses area and who had accompanied Braxton and Julie Moral during one summer of classes at Harvard, positioned themselves on bleachers nearby.
Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson made a point of attending the graduation and presented certificates to students earning certifications or post-high school degrees. Four students — Kimberly Altis, Karen Rodriguez, Enrique Garcia, and Abigail Mendoza — completed two-year associate degrees from Seward County Community College. In all, the Ulysses High seniors earned 1,323 college credits before graduation. Announcement of Moral's four-year bachelor's degree in liberal arts from Harvard University prompted a "whoop" from the gym audience and loud applause.
"Pretty neat. Pretty neat. Not a bit surprised," Cindy Wittman, a retired elementary school librarian, had said of Moral's dual graduations.
Ulysses High teacher Jodi Pfingsten, selected to address the class at commencement, said she had struggled to find the word that best described this senior class. "Every class has their own flavor," she said. "Your class is hungry," she said.
You have a hunger to excel, to compete, she said. "Stay hungry," she urged.
Brittney Moral Seger, of Ulysses, and her twin sister, Brandi Moral Zamarripa, of Great Bend, are the oldest Moral children at age 29. Brother Bryce Moral, of Wichita, is 27. Ten years younger, Braxton is an uncle to two nieces, one nephew and another nephew on the way.
Brittney recalled when Braxton was 18 months old and they were in the car. Julie Moral said she needed someone to hand her $2.44, and this small hand held out the right number of coins. Brittney recalled she and her mother exchanged looks that asked: How did he do that?
Besides that, he had "a weird vocabulary," Seger said.
He skipped fourth grade at Ulysses. He took a history class through Fort Hays State University as a middle school student and earned an "A," recalled Alan Kautz, school psychologist with the High Plains Education Cooperative.
Gifted students who aren't challenged run the risk of losing their work ethic, Kautz said.
"This was a great example of what the internet can do," Kautz said, also praising Moral's parents for seeking pathways.
You don't want to overwhelm the student, Kautz said, "but every time we put a challenge in front of Braxton, he rose to the challenge."
The teen majored in government and minored in English through Harvard's extension program, taking courses online and, during summers, on campus in Cambridge, Mass. His Harvard classes were diverse and included astronomy, Chinese, poetry and economics. Some university classes substituted for high school class credits, and the Ivy League school and Ulysses USD 214 communicated about their mutual student.
Ulysses English teacher Tamra Rundell smiled as she recounted that Moral told his Harvard professor that she was a Shakespearean scholar.
But Rundell was impressed that Moral did not ask for help from his high school teachers to complete his Harvard studies.
"He was very serious about the integrity of his work," Rundell said.
Ulysses High government teacher Chase Rietcheck was not surprised Moral's choice of major was government. "It's something he's really passionate about," Rietcheck said.
The next step for Moral will be law school. He hasn't received responses from all the law school options under consideration, so he hasn't settled on a school.
Family friend and Wichita attorney Randy Rathbun was among those attending Moral's graduation party Saturday. "He just has an incredible future ahead of him. He still is a very humble young guy," Rathbun said. "I think he'll have a number of opportunities," he said.
Moral will not be taking classes this summer. "For now, I'll bask in it," he said of the prospect of unscheduled time. His summer to-do list does include completing work to achieve his Eagle Scout badge.
National coverage of the western Kansas teen on the cusp of graduating from high school and Harvard has intensified since January. Television crews came to Ulysses earlier and on Sunday, a videographer for NBC Television's "Today" show visited the Moral home and covered commencement.
An appearance by Moral on Ellen DeGeneres' daytime talk show is expected after the Harvard graduation.
Moral is working on the first draft for a hardcover book to be published in August by a Kansas-based publisher. It will be a memoir of his educational journey. The deadline for the first draft is May 31. "It's going all right," Moral said of progress on the book.
"He was just normal in my classroom," Ulysses High's Rundell said. She and Rietcheck used the word "humble" to describe Moral.
On Sunday morning, Moral and a dozen fellow graduating Ulysses High classmates attended a service at Oasis Church, where the pastor prayed and asked the congregation to help him bless them. The church gave each graduate a laundry basket with detergent, a towel and a Bible.
Back home, the Moral children communicated with their parents before graduation.
Moral owns class rings for both Ulysses High and Harvard. On Sunday, it was the silver Harvard ring that he wore on his finger. The 6-foot, 2-inch Moral experienced a growth spurt this year and the Ulysses High ring is too small, he said.
Moral was among Ulysses seniors who didn't submit photos for a personal page to be shown onscreen prior to commencement. One unfinished piece of high school business for Moral right before the ceremony was to pick up awards for lettering this year in tennis and forensics.
"He flew across the stage," Brittney Seger said after the commencement, describing the difficulty of capturing photos of her brother's walk.
"I'm ready. I'm excited to be done with this. It was nice when it lasted, it's time to move on," Moral had said on the eve of his Ulysses graduation.
"Yeah. Ready to go," he said.
For the Kansas teen who made history with his dual degrees, another personal first looms. Prior to the kidney transplant surgery, the Moral family had planned to drive back to Massachusetts for the May 30 commencement. Moral said he and family members now probably will fly.
It'll be his first flight, said his sister Brittney Seger.