Motivational speaker makes surprise return to Palmyra High School

Motivational speaker Mike Donahue is hugged by Palmyra High School student Keri Caldwell during his visit to the school Tuesday morning, March 17, 2015.
Posted: Mar. 18, 2015 8:48 am Updated: Apr. 16, 2015 9:04 am

Staff Writer | 217-221-3385 | @athompsonWHIG

PALMYRA, Mo. -- Palmyra High School students didn't immediately recognize the long-haired, guitar-playing man standing before them in the school gym Tuesday morning, but it didn't take them long to figure it out.

The man, introduced as former Rolling Stones roadie Walt Finnegan, pulled off his blond wig and put down his guitar to claps and cheers from the students. It was Mike Donahue, a Nebraska-based motivational speaker who spoke to students about bullying and substance abuse in December.

Donahue was scheduled to make presentations Tuesday afternoon at Palmyra Middle School, but he popped by the high school to surprise and check on the students he connected with three months ago.

"I didn't know who it was at first, and then I saw it was Mike and I was just kind of shocked," senior Lauren Hathaway said. "It was cool that he came back to follow up."

Palmyra's chapter of Family, Career and Community Leaders of America invited Donahue to the school last year in hopes changing a culture that students described as cliquey and disjointed.

"There was a bed of negative energy everywhere (before Donahue's visit)," senior FCCLA member Easton Holstine said. "There was a lot of change in faculty and staff, and it just wasn't the same school that it was the first two years I was here. People were getting into a lot of trouble."

After an emotional assembly in which Donahue challenged the students to "walk a mile" in one another's shoes, things seemed to change, senior FCCLA member Marissa Massner said.

"A lot of the talking (about one another) stopped, and the apologies came out," Massner said. "A lot of people came close together. There are still those groups, but those groups came together as one. It seemed like a school."

Holstine said attitudes remained upbeat until school dismissed for holiday break two weeks after Donahue's December assembly. The positive energy faded, but Donahue said that's to be expected.

"I am not a savior," he told students Tuesday, adding that no motivational speaker could single-handedly transform a school. "The only thing that's going to change the school is you."

That's what FCCLA students plan to do. They've launched the Walk A Mile group, an organization open to all Palmyra students that's meant to give them a safe and welcoming atmosphere to talk and support one another.

Junior Kristen Charlton said having Donahue repeat his message should also help.

"If everybody really incorporated what they feel would make our school better, it would be a better school overall," Charlton said. "We're pretty great anyway."