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Wisdom comes from the unlikeliest places. And on Saturday, Ben Bowling, the valedictorian of Bell County High School in Pineville, Ky., made an inspirational appeal that left his graduating classmates and their parents dumbstruck.
“This is the part of my speech where I share some inspirational quotes I found on Google,” he told the packed auditorium. “‘Don’t just get involved. Fight for your seat at the table. Better yet, fight for a seat at the head of the table’ — Donald J. Trump.”
The crowd burst into applause. President Trump is quite popular in Pineville and the surrounding area, which is the heart of coal country and overwhelmingly supported the president in the 2016 election after he promised to bring coal jobs back to America.
Mr. Bowling, though, wasn’t finished.
“Just kidding,” he said. “That was Barack Obama.”
The cheering abruptly stopped. The crowd went mostly silent. There was a lone boo.
Mr. Bowling was quoting a May 2012 commencement speech President Obama gave to the graduating class of Barnard College in New York City. He offered this message to graduates of the women’s college then: “Women shape not only their own destiny but the destiny of this nation and of this world.”
“He’s very politically aware,” Richard Gambrel, the principal of Bell County High School, said of Mr. Bowling.
Mr. Bowling, 18, and his parents, who live in Middlesboro, Ky., declined to be interviewed.
The valedictorian, though, told The Louisville Courier Journal on Saturday that he quoted Mr. Obama because the president offered a good message. He was aware how the crowd would react, even if he shared it in a lighthearted and funny way.
“Most people wouldn’t like it if I used it,” he told The Courier Journal. “So I thought I’d use Donald Trump’s name. It is southeastern Kentucky after all.”
Mr. Obama is unpopular in that part of the state. During the campaign, President Trump promised to revive the area, bringing back jobs and loosening regulations. Just last week, Mr. Trump ordered Energy Secretary Rick Perry to explore policies to keep unprofitable coal and nuclear plants from closing.
“He told us what we wanted to hear,” Mr. Gambrel said. “He has helped some of the folks who previously didn’t have jobs. Some have gone back to work.”
Mr. Bowling graduated from Bell County High School with a 4.2 grade point average and will attend the University of Kentucky on a full scholarship, Mr. Gambrel said.
“Most of them probably got the joke,” Mr. Gambrel said of the crowd at graduation. More surprising, he said, is that no one was aware whom Mr. Bowling was quoting. “It proves that people don’t read or pay attention,” he added, with a laugh.