GETTYSBURG, PA. — Like Abraham Lincoln, seventh-grader Joe Smith stepped up on a platform here to read a few pages -- written in his own hand -- about the venerated ground before him.
But the Sykesville Middle School student didn't come to Gettysburg National Military Park to consecrate a cemetery for Union war dead, as Lincoln did, but to tell people what the national parks mean to him.
"To me, a national park means a place where we can provide a homefor all kinds of animals to live in . . . a natural habitat," Joe wrote in his four-page essay.
The 12-year-old Eldersburg resident was the middle school-level winner in an essay contest sponsored by theGettysburg National Military Park and the Friends of the National Parks at Gettysburg in honor of the 75th anniversary of the park system.
National parks were around before 1916 (Gettysburg was established in 1895), but it was not until then that the parks were consolidated under the management of the National Park Service in the Department of the Interior.
For his efforts, Joe, like the elementary and high school winners, received a $100 U.S. savings bond and a certificate. And, of course, an invitation to read his essay during Sunday's ceremony in a grove of trees outside the Cyclorama Center.
Joe and the others (both Pennsylvania students) were chosen from some 300 entries, mostly from the Mid-Atlantic states, said Jim Voigt, an interpretive specialist at the battlefield. The contest was open to studentsacross the nation.
For Joe, the essay began with an assignment ina sixth-grade language arts class. He had five class periods to workon it. Once he got going, the writing came easy, he said.
To inspire the students, teacher Patti Shovlin showed them a video about thenational parks, including Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons. AlthoughJoe and his family had visited Gettysburg before, he never mentionedthat park or any other in his essay.
Instead, he wrote about the natural elements of the nation's parks.
"I wanted to tell people something they didn't already know," he said. "I didn't want to tell them just about facts about parks."
"He's always been keen on animals and nature," said his mother, Jan, an editor of a publishing company. "I think he would rather watch a good video about nature or animals than movies."
Joe said the nervousness he felt before reading his essay was eased by words of comfort from his parents. Besides his mother, his father, Todd, a manufacturer's representative, and sisterJamie, 14, attended the event.
Writing is not a hobby for Joe. He'd rather play football, baseball and wrestle.
"I think if he had a tape recorder and a secretary, he would do a lot of writing," his mother said. "He has a good imagination."
What Voigt liked about the winning essays was the authors' inclusion of the variety of parks across the nation. There are 357 national parks and areas in 49 statesand U.S. territories.
"All three of the winners talked about our national and historical resources and the preservation of the naturaland cultural places," Voigt said. "They were very personal essays."
The purpose of the contest, Voigt said, was to get students thinking about national parks. He said the parks are especially important to future generations.