At this year’s Franklin County High School graduation, a special tribute was made to a young man who never had a chance to earn his diploma.

Instead, an empty chair sat on the front row next to the class officers.

On it was placed a gown, signed by the classmates, and carried into the ceremony by William Lee, who would have walked alongside this young man as they filed into the gym.

When the time came for students to hand out sunflowers to their loved ones, senior Chance White presented them to Leon O’Neal II and Felicia Stroud, parents of the young man.

Senior Alex Daniels gave them a mortar board signed by all the classmates.

These were the signatures of the 58 other seniors who would have marched together with Jacobie O’Neal.

He had passed away 12 years earlier at age 6, a fun-loving and energetic young boy who died of heart failure after his young body rejected a heart transplant.

Leigh Smith, chair of the Seahawk graduating committee, said the gown was signed by the classmates their freshman year, and is traditionally sliced up their senior year and distributed to classmates.

“They usually cut their name out and keep it,” said Smith. “The class decided to keep it intact and give it to Jacobie’s parents.”

In addition, Herff Jones donated a cap for them to sign and give to the parents.

It was a tearful moment for Jacobie’s entire family.

In a message sent this week to the FCHS graduating class, faculty and staff from the family of Jacobie O’Neal, Stroud wrote that “we would like to thank you from the bottom of our heart. The way you included Jacobie and our family to be a part of the graduation ceremony left us all speechless and full of emotions.

“We know Jacobie was there in spirit, but you all made us feel like he was there in the flesh,” she wrote. “We would like to congratulate you all for this milestone and wish you all well for the next chapter in your life. Jacobie and our family will always be a part of the class of 2018.”

On his Facebook page, O’Neal also expressed his thanks to the staff and grads.

“Last night was perfect, you guys did an awesome job. I just wanted to tell you all thank you from the bottom of my heart for giving me that piece of closure,” he wrote, “I will cherish May 18, 2018 forever! Again, thank you, thank, thank you, and good luck on your next journey in life, whatever it may be.”