TUPELO • Spencer Kirkpatrick didn’t get to walk across a stage in front of thousands of well-wishers to receive his college diploma, but the 24-year-old was far from disappointed Friday.
Close family members gathered at his home in Tupelo at 2 p.m. to watch his virtual graduation from Mississippi State University’s ACCESS program, a four-year, non-degree program for students with intellectual or developmental disabilities. Spencer is the son of Kevan and Maribeth Kirkpatrick of Tupelo and Joanna and Matt Gagliardi of Minneapolis, Minnesota.
“They played ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ and Dr. Keenum and others gave speeches,” Kevan Kirkpatrick said. “Spencer was really into watching the virtual graduation. He knew that it was a celebration – the end of college. It helped provide some closure to his college career.”
Spencer came home from Starkville for spring break and, like other students across the state, never returned to campus, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. He completed his daily classwork on Zoom and finished the ACCESS program two weeks ago.
“At first it was just so incredibly heartbreaking to realize he wouldn’t be able to finish out his senior year,” Kirkpatrick said. “This goes for all seniors, but for us especially, Spencer, and the other ACCESS seniors, because whoever would have thought they went to college in the first place and all the work, the ups and downs that they’ve been through, to not finish it out. All Spencer talked about was graduation; for him, that meant walking across the stage.”
On Friday, Spencer’s home stage included a few surprises. First, Tupelo Mayor Jason Shelton, along with the city’s chief operations officer, Don Lewis, showed up at his house after his virtual graduation ceremony and presented him with a key to the city.
“The mayor and I had talked in the past – after Spencer was crowned homecoming king at State – and he said he wanted to do something to honor him,” Kirkpatrick said. “This seemed perfect.”
“Spencer, we’re so proud of you,” Shelton told the two dozen family members gathered in the Kirkpatrick’s front yard. “Everybody is proud of Elvis Presley for being from Tupelo. Now we can tell people we’ve got two kings from Tupelo.”
But the surprise didn’t end there. After the mayor spoke, dozens of neighbors gathered in their yards with congratulatory signs and cowbells to watch a parade of walkers, golf carts and cars, all led by a Tupelo Fire Department truck, honor Spencer.
“This is just beyond words, what people are coming out to do for Spencer,” Kirkpatrick said. “It just melts your heart. ... It’s such a mix of emotions, happy and sad at the same time. Sometimes it’s so excruciatingly painful that we can’t celebrate it like it should be celebrated, but then again, we are so thankful that we have friends and family that are going to help us celebrate it the best way we can. It’s almost imperfectly perfect, how it’s going to happen.”
On Friday, Spencer said he was happy about graduation and that his years at MSU had been a good experience.
“I’m looking forward to being at work,” he said.
Kirkpatrick said Spencer has worked as an intern at Longtown Medical Park when he was home from school on breaks.
“The plan was to transition him into a job at Longtown or in the hospital system,” Kirkpatrick said. “That will still happen. With COVID-19, we just don’t know when that will be. We’re going to have a time trying to keep him busy.”