Brenna Swift, The Union Democrat

Sonora High School student Gus Kipper, 17, has been walking on sunshine since being crowned winter homecoming king.

The crown means something more to Kipper and his family than it would to the typical homecoming king. He is autistic and spends part of his days in special education classes, but is described by classmates as the most popular student in school.

"I just think that Gus is such a great guy," said Kelsie Evans, a Sonora High freshman who has a choir class with Kipper. "You canjust watch him for five minutes during lunch period, and he'll be walking around giving people hugs and high fives."

Kipper, a fifth-generation Sonora High student, won his peer's votes for homecoming king by a landslide. Even weeks after the Jan. 18 vote, friends and teachers are still congratulating him on the big victory.

One of Kipper's teachers, Bonnie Ellis, said everyone predicted he would win.

"The entire crowd erupted into this roar of, 'Right on, Gus!'" said Sonora High Assistant Principal Ben Howell. "It's one of those defining moments that you see in movies."

Kipper has a warm, winning smile that brightens up the day for everyone around him. Sonora High junior Ali Pelfrey described him as "just a wonderful person," a sentiment echoed by his other friends.

For Gus's mother, Cindy Miller, his crowning as homecoming king signalled a breaking of barriers.

High schoolers have "opened their hearts and souls to special needs kids," Miller said.

When Kipper first started mainstream classes as a Sonora High freshman, staff were concerned that he would be bullied, she explained.

"Four years later, look how it turned out," Miller said of her gregarious son. "I cannot say enough about Sonora High School and how the mainstream classes happen."

Sonora High has a club called "Wildcat Partners," which brings special education and mainstream students together during lunch periods to play games. Kipper is known for winning a game called the "Dice Game," based on pure luck, almost every time.

He's a talented athlete who bowls and plays basketball in local Special Olympics competitions.

He and his older brother, Zackery Kipper, who is also autistic, have won more than 100 Special Olympic medals, Miller said. The family lives in Tuolumne with Miller's mother, Laura Miller.

Kipper's other hobbies are playing video games, hiking and hanging out with his friends, who he calls his "dudes."

He said his favorite classes are physical education and choir. He doesn't suffer from stage fright for one simple reason: "I'm brave," he said.