WHEN THE Times Leader’s Best & Brightest Awards began in 1994 I confess I wasn’t paying a lot of attention.
My wife and I had a baby in the house and another on the way. I was a feature writer for The Times Leader and not too involved in decision making management at that level. Awards for high school seniors seemed as far away to me as a full night sleep.
Time passes and here we are. The babies are grown and so have I. I’ve grown to love the Best & Brightest. The annual special section was published Saturday in The Times Leader and I’m proud of that issue, not because it is the biggest or best but rather, because we tried and succeeded. I’m proud because it is.
During the ownership changes that The Times Leader has gone through during the past two years the Best & Brightest could have fallen through the cracks. It became a mission of mine to keep it alive. In its initial years the Best & Brightest was a publication of award winners. It grew into an elaborate event at the F.M. Kirby Center with a video presentation and reception with scholarships and a car giveaway. Those elaborate trappings are the things that fell through the cracks. The basic concept — championed 20 years ago by two high school educators and a former editor - remains as vital and earnest as a good education. If we heap praise on high school athletes then surely great academic effort deserves a measure of recognition.
What other media outlet in Northeastern Pennsylvania does this? Print, TV, radio or online? The Times Leader has done this for 20 years. I wasn’t prepared to let that go away.
So this year we solicited schools for nominations of students in 14 categories and had judges for each category. The section published Saturday and I think under the current ownership of Civitas Media and the leadership of Walt Lafferty, The Times Leader’s Regional Director of Business Development and General Manager (think publisher), Best & Brightest will continue to thrive and engage students and the community even more. We continue to serve the community.
I came to understand the importance of Best & Brightest during the past 12 years as I was asked to judge nominees in categories, present awards at the events and had the opportunity to meet the amazing nominees when they came in for judging interviews and a session in front of the video cameras. Those interviews were spread out over several nights. The video was created by a crew from WNEP-TV while a few of us took turns on each night, sitting just off camera, prompting the students to talk about school, life and the future and surprising them with silly questions or requests for each to sing. The edited interviews were often a lot of fun and a big hit on awards night.
Frankly, it was a pleasure — even after a long day of work - to spend a few hours meeting those amazing young people. Many students in categories other than music or performance were surprisingly good singers. And many students had the good humor to sing even if they clearly couldn’t. Some students just stood out. In 2010, a few days before her Best & Brightest interview I watched Coughlin senior Shelley Black break the 100 meter hurdle record at the James Cross Invitational at Wilkes-Barre Memorial Stadium. It was my mistake to expect the athlete to show up; Black was surprisingly quiet the night of interviews. In 2008 a quirk in categories had judges set the hurdle pretty high for nominees in the Vocational & Technical Skills. In walked Jeremy Stull of Lake-Lehman who was talented, motivated and articulate, and a pleasure to meet. He impressed the judges: He was the winner.
And as my two children navigated high school I came to better understand the challenges a students to day face. I came to meet a lot of their peers and appreciate what it takes to get a quality education. And while I’m proud of Best & Brightest, being named a winner in the event isn’t a final validation or even the purpose.
What’s important is that the entire community raise its expectations and recognition of education. And that none of us — no matter our age or place — ever stop trying to learn or to be better or brighter.
Joe Butkiewicz is Executive Editor of the Times Leader