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New tobacco law could send Salesianum's graduation cigar tradition up in smoke

Natalia Alamdari
The News Journal

At Salesianum School, graduation is all about tradition.

The graduates don white tie tuxedoes and file into the auditorium with a sense of ritual decorum as they remember the past four years and join the generations of students who came before them.

And every year after the ceremony, the graduates gather on the front steps of the school and light up cigars.

It’s a time-honored tradition that makes graduates feel closer to past generations, and it takes place again Friday, May 31.

Thanks to a new Delaware law, it’s a tradition that's in jeopardy.

In April, Gov. John Carney signed a law raising the legal age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21. The law goes into effect in July, so this year’s grads can still puff up after they receive their diplomas.

Anthony Mancini lights his cigar, part of a Salesianum graduation tradition, following graduation ceremonies on Friday evening, May 30, 2014.

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But next year, it will be illegal for them or their parents to buy the ceremonial cigars.

Under the new law, anyone who purchases tobacco products for someone under 21 faces a civil penalty and up to a $1,000 fine.

Since the law won’t go into effect until next year, the school hasn’t yet given it much thought, said Brendan Kennealey, president of Saliesianum.

But, Kennealey said, dropping the post-grad cigars isn’t too much of a loss. When he graduated in 1994, it wasn’t even a tradition.

“Our kids now, they think that it’s been around forever, like it’s something that could never change,” he said. “It’s not actually that old." 

Kennealey didn’t know about the cigars until he joined the school in 2011. He wasn’t sure how it became a tradition. While he isn’t a fan of seeing pictures of his students smoking on campus, he does value seeing generations of alumni share a cigar together.

Salesianum School graduates Connor Buek (left) and Andrew Gantert light up cigars in keeping with after-ceremony tradition as the Wilmington school hosts its commencement in 2017.

Tim Bouchard is one who did. After his 2015 graduation, he shared a cigar with his uncle, a fellow Sallies grad. The possibility of seeing the tradition end is sad, he said, but he thinks future grads will find something new to commemorate the day.

“This is one of those unique things that promotes the community and brotherhood Salesianum offers,” he said. “It makes a stronger bond with you and your classmates and your teachers. You went through that whole journey of high school with the same people. It’s nice to have something unique to celebrate that.”

It wasn’t until he was asked about it that Bouchard realized he didn’t know the tradition’s origin. 

Matthew Baxter, who graduated in 2017, also assumed it went back “at least a couple of generations.” For him, it was a cool way to wrap up his high school career.

He said he could imagine friends will continue the tradition in the privacy of their homes, rather than on the front steps of the school. But it won’t be the same, he said.   

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“It’s like you’re a part of the tradition that’s gone back however many generations, and you feel connected to that,” Baxter said. “If it’s just you and your buddies, you still have meaning with you and your friends, but the bigger picture, it’s not as powerful.”

Graduates (from left) Daniel Slobodjian, Liam Bellew and Matt Barnes share a light after Salesianum School's graduation ceremony in 2015.

Mark Hannagan said watching his class light up cigars felt like one generation passing the torch to the next. While he didn't participate, he said fathers and sons can be seen smoking together in the background of his graduation pictures. 

Even if the cigar tradition disappears, Kennealey said links to past generations will continue to be embraced at Salesianum's ceremonies. He wants his students to feel like they're part of the school for life, rather than just four years.   

“The whole idea is that when you go there, everyone there is your brother and you’re supposed to treat them as such," Baxter said. "With graduation, most aspects of it are supposed to connect you to previous generations. You feel connected to not only your class, but everyone who came before you.”

Natalia Alamdari covers education for The News Journal. Reach her at (302) 324-2312 or nalamdari@delawareonline.com.