Northwood High seniors graduate after classmate's death

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WTVD) -- One of the final lessons learned by seniors at Northwood High School in Pittsboro didn't come from a textbook.

Instead, it was a life lesson; a lesson that life is fragile and can be gone tomorrow.

The Northwood Class of 2015 received their diplomas on Saturday at a ceremony at UNC-Chapel Hill's Carmichael Arena, but one senior was absent from the roll call.

Yolanda Gonzalez's diploma was given to her family Thursday in a special ceremony after the 18-year old died in a crash on Monday.

At Saturday's ceremony, the chair where Gonzalez would have sat was empty, except for a single red rose.

She was remembered at the beginning of a speech by the senior class president.

"I would now like to take this time to remember Yolanda Gonzalez who could not be with us today. And hopefully her presence will be felt from above guiding us on the path to success," said John Atwater.

He then bowed his head and for several seconds everyone sat in complete silence.

Atwater then added, "I know that her smile is shining down on all of us today."

Gonzalez died Monday morning when, according to the State Highway Patrol, her car ran into the median on Highway 15-501 in Chatham County and began flipping.

Her car rolled into oncoming traffic and came to rest on top of a car driven by 44-year-old John Collins of Pinehurst.

Collins, a professor and the chair of the Aerospace Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill, also died.

Northwood Principal Justin Bartholomew told ABC 11 after today's graduation ceremony that it took many people in Chatham County to pull together to help two families and an entire high school student body in their time of grief.

"Our community has been so incredibly supportive, I think, of both families in getting past this and helping us work through it leading up to today. So it's, I'm really proud of them," Bartholomew said.

A fund has been set up to help Gonzalez's family. Donations can be made in her name at any State Employees Credit Union branch.

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