Students show that patriotism is again all right


Contest: Fifty-four finalists express their feelings in essays on `America's future.' Many used themes related to Sept. 11.

April 10, 2002|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

IN THE WAKE of Sept. 11, patriotism is cool in American high schools. It's also smart. And it pays off.

I realized this again last week in Arlington, Va., where I was a judge in the national Voice of Democracy contest sponsored by the Veterans of Foreign Wars and its ladies auxiliary. The judging panel listened to 54 short taped essays -- the finalists from the 50 states, District of Columbia and U.S. territories. Local and state contests had winnowed these essays from a record 85,900 entries, all grasping at this year's theme, "Reaching Out to America's Future."

Although every year I wince at the chosen topic, and although years ago I marched to protest one of America's foreign wars, I always find the experience of judging the contest exhilarating. It restores my faith in the country and its democratic processes.

There's also the satisfaction of helping hand out thousands of dollars in college scholarships. Every one of the 54 finalists takes home at least a $1,000 award, and the 2002 winner, Allegra Guarino, 17, of New Paltz, N.Y., won $25,000. This, in addition to prizes awarded in local and state contests and an expenses-paid trip to Washington.

Although the entry deadline was Nov. 1, little more than six weeks after the terrorist attacks, entries surged by 10 percent. By my unofficial count, 35 of the finalists played on themes related to Sept. 11.

The judging is "blind." Entries are numbered, and contestants in their essays can't identify hometowns, states or schools. So there was no way I could cheat for the Maryland winner, Anthony Glime, a junior at Easton High School in Talbot County, or the winner from my native Montana, Natali Hamblin of Ekalaka. (I won my state's Voice of Democracy contest in 1958.)

Usually I don't stay around to learn the winners, but this year I took careful notes. My third-place winner was Guarino. My first-place choice, Jason Hibner of Vandalia, Ohio, took home the $16,000 Charles Kuralt Scholarship for second place nationally. And my third-place choice, Montana's Hamblin -- must have been something in her voice -- was sixth in the national contest, earning a $5,000 scholarship.

What kind of kid would declaim love of country on a theme of "Reaching Out to America's Future," and do it for all the world to listen? This year I did a little biographical work, and Monday I talked to Guarino, Hibner and Hamblin, all freshly returned from their Washington trip.

Turns out these patriotic kids aren't goody-two-shoes shunned by cynical classmates. Many are school leaders. Not a few are budding scientists and mathematicians. Two are bound for Harvard. Two are home-schooled. Several, God help them, want to be journalists.

The best essays draw on personal and family experiences. Guarino's winner -- the one triumphant in the field of 85,900 -- is poetic and dreamlike, comparing the talismanic "dream stones" of Appalachia to the new war on terrorism.

"America, too, has a dream stone," writes Guarino. "It is tri-colored in red, white and blue. Red for the blood shed yesterday, white for the pure freedoms we enjoy today and blue for the endless clear skies of tomorrow."

Hamblin, 17, a senior, said she had been encouraged to enter the contest by Cathy Frye, her senior English teacher at Carter County High School in extreme (and extremely isolated) southeastern Montana.

"Amazing!" she kept saying. Amazing she'd visited Washington for the first time, expenses paid. Amazing she'd seen a play at Ford's Theatre. Amazing she'd met the president. And that she'd waited so long for her name to be announced at the awards dinner. (Winners are announced in reverse order.)

No also-ran attitude on the Montana prairie. Sixth place was quite amazing to Natali Hamblin, American patriot.

Perkins situation leaves tough questions to ponder

What a mess at Towson University! The forced resignation of President Mark L. Perkins after only nine months on the job forces the school to return to square one of the expensive presidential search process. A recent national study shows that university presidencies that last a short time are extremely damaging. And most of this over a mansion that Perkins didn't purchase.

Two questions hang like storm clouds: Would the university Board of Regents have forced the College Park president out of office over a $350,000 cost overrun? And who of presidential quality would want to run Towson under this gang of regents who can't shoot straight?

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