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Class of 2013Daniel Nelli

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Ashbrook High School valedictorian restored school spirit

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  • LIFT Academy helps 30 get West Charlotte diplomas
  • Daniel Nelli

    Age: 18

    Parents: Father, James Nelli, a chemical engineer; mother, Katherine Nelli, who teaches freshman seminar classes at Ashbrook High School.

    Heroes: Superman; his father and older brother; Witold Glinski, Polish survivor of a Siberian prison camp during World War II.

    Favorite movies: Director Tim Burton’s “Big Fish,” adapted from UNC-Chapel Hill professor Daniel Wallace’s novel; director Terrence Malick’s impressionistic family tale “The Tree of Life”; and the teen romance “Ten Things I Hate About You.”

    Reading tastes: Khaled Hosseini and John Irving.

    Future: Wake Forest University to study physics


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GASTONIA School spirit had slipped sharply at Ashbrook High – until a new student took charge.

At Saturday’s graduation ceremony, where senior Daniel Nelli will deliver the valedictorian address, he’ll remember coming there four years ago from a small private school, worrying about how he’d adjust at a place with nearly 1,300 students.

New friends persuaded him to run for freshman class president, and to his surprise he won. That set a trend. He would be elected president of the sophomore and junior classes and serves as student body president.

As a popular leader, Nelli orchestrated a revival of school spirit. “He loves this place,” said Ashbrook Principal Joey Clinton. “He’s an awesome kid – one of those people who is a natural-born leader.”

Bianca Yavelak, who taught Nelli in chemistry, physics and biology classes, called him the kind of a student “who makes you want to be a better teacher.”

“Daniel keeps you on your toes and makes it fun to teach,” she said. “He’s always excited about everything – a once-in-a-career-type of kid.”

Nelli looks forward to college, but high school was a blast, and he hates to go.

“It’ll definitely be bittersweet,” he said.

Before he was an Ashbrook student, Nelli had come to ball games there with his older sisters and brother. The place rocked. He’d never seen such an explosion of school spirit.

But when he landed at Ashbrook as a freshman, the old spirit “had kind of faded away,” Nelli recalled.

He set out to change that. Nelli and a friend revived the “Zoo Crew,” a cheering club that took its name from asserting that Ashbrook teams would round all its rival Gaston high schools’ teams and animal mascots in a “zoo.”

Prior to athletic events, members sold “Zoo Club” items such as T-shirts and sunglasses to students, teachers and adults. Proceeds from the online effort bought pizza and sodas for tailgate parties. These events were free to members and anybody else who wanted to show up.

“Zoo Crew” appearances at ballgames had themes such as NASCAR and Roman togas. Sometimes members dressed up as cowboys and cowgirls. At one football game, they came as “Brave Heart” warriors, wearing kilts and carrying Styrofoam swords. They charged, 150 strong, down an embankment, and then Nelli delivered Mel Gibson’s speech from the movie.

The “Zoo Crew” campaign worked. Things began to rock again around Ashbrook.

Club work was time-consuming, but Nelli fit it into an already-crowded schedule. For four years, he played varsity soccer and tennis. His sophomore year, he won state and regional Science Fair competitions and got a free trip to Vancouver, British Columbia, to attend an international convention of top scientists. Interacting with those experts inspired him to pursue a scientific research career in college.

Nelli helped form Ashbrook’s Outdoors Club. He saw it as a good way to take a break from school – hiking at Crowders Mountain State Park, rock climbing and camping.

Last week at school

This week, as the last moments of high school slipped away, Nelli stayed busier than ever. In addition to final exams, he helped paint a mural in the school courtyard and attended to details of donating a new basketball-score table to the school.

On top of that, he was deep into putting the finishing touches on a science class project – a 45-minute movie in which superheroes break the laws of physics.

And he also had to write his valedictory. For this farewell to high school, he wanted to inspire and celebrate the excitement he felt going to class every day.

Nelli had a little of what he called pre-speech “jitterbugs,” but felt he could pull it off.

“If you make it come from the heart,” he said, “it’ll end up good in the end.”

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