Fifty-four cadets from Missouri Military Academy marched into Centennial Gymatorium on Saturday as seniors and left as graduates.

President Richard Geraci welcomed family and friends of graduates, as well as academy staff members.

"Since 1889, families and cadets have chosen MMA for our rich academic, athletic and military traditions. They have chosen us the lessons in character, self-discipline and leadership that only a military school can provide," he said.

He also recognized faculty and staff for their contribution to cadet lives before acknowledging the Class of 2019.

"I congratulate you on requiring the academic requirements for graduation and stepping up to the rigor MMA has demanded of each of you in every facet of your life. You depart here today with more than a high school diploma," Geraci said. "Best of luck to each of you."

Multiple company and individual awards were presented to cadets, along with the naming of the class' valedictorian, who was Colton Lucas of Vernon, Texas.

"Seniors, reflect on your lives before MMA. What were your goals, what were your tribulations, what was the driving force that got you to these hallowed front steps?" he said.

Lucas said when he first came to the academy it was terrifying, because it was so far from his home and it was a military school. Pressure built on him, both in the regimented military and academic requirements, and he said he felt like collapsing.

"I was always told to keep my head up and move through everything,” Lucas said. “Even if it seems impossible, just keep moving forward. I listened and in the end it was worth it.”

The keynote was provided by President Emeritus Tony McGeorge. He became president of the academy in 2012, where he instituted the 360 education program, incorporating arts programs and a system in which cadets could graduate with a high school diploma and an associate of arts degree. He retired in February.

McGeorge prepared for his speech by looking at other well-known commencement addresses, he said. "Most of those addresses had a theme that ran through it and that was of direction,” he said.

While he agreed with those sentiments, he said he wanted his address to look at love as a theme, more than directing cadets to do something.

"You can't love others if you don't love yourself. If you love yourself, you work on building self-confidence and self-esteem," McGeorge said.

Young men who know how to love themselves and commit to a goal cannot be defeated, he added.

"You go toward your fears... for it is by challenging yourself that you grow and build self-esteem, self-confidence and most importantly, self-love," he said.

He also encouraged cadets to dedicate themselves to positive change, which can include helping those who are sick, older or even classmates who need assistance.

"If you give self-love, you will get the most wonderful return," McGeorge said. "It takes a person of character, of love, of empathy and personal courage to silence the bully and to stand up for those who have a difficult time in standing up for themselves."