ST. GEORGE — Gideon Willard, a ninth grader at Dixie Middle School, won a national essay contest with his paper on patriotism. He was recognized at an awards ceremony held in Washington County and won $500 for himself and $500 for his teacher.
Willard’s winning essay quotes Thomas Paine and Ronald Reagan, contrasts the freedoms of the United States with the oppressive regimes of Mao and Stalin and urges readers to cherish their individual liberties.
“I remember writing about how if we’re not careful with our freedoms, we’re going to lose them,” Willard said. “We need to be aware of the founders’ vision for this country. I hinted a little to the fact that we are losing the foundation of the principles that make this nation free. If we don’t guard and defend those freedoms, we’re going to lose them.”
Willard won the Steve O’Dell award for best overall essay in the Help Patriotism Prevail “Saving Dr. Warren” Essay Contest. The contest was organized by Southern Utah author Jeffrey McKenna, the writer of “Saving Dr. Warren…A True Patriot.”
Joining the contest
It was a stroke of luck that Willard heard about the contest in the first place. His teacher, Peggy Jardine, only ended up teaching at Dixie Middle School after the COVID-19 pandemic derailed her plans to pursue a post-retirement church-service mission.
After taking the position of college preparatory literature teacher, Jardine introduced her students to “Saving Dr. Warren,” a book that she had helped to revise almost 10 years ago when McKenna had approached her students for feedback.
In the following years, the book was edited and revised many more times before publication. When Jardine heard about the essay contest, she offered her students the opportunity to participate.
“These kids that wrote the essay, they were able to go to the library and do it completely on their own,” Jardine said. “Only 12 of my 35 kids did the essay contest, so I had them send me their copies and then I’d go over them about two or three times before the final thing was done. I could see quite a bit of growth.”
For his essay, Willard said he took the time to prepare and research using resources at the school as well as information he found online and in his home library.
“I read a lot,” Willard said. “My Dad has a ton of books on the Revolution and political ideas and sciences. I wrote a lot from my memory, and I put a lot of those ideas into there. I wouldn’t say I was reared on politics, but they were a big part of my early life.”
Contest winners and prizes
There were over 150 essays submitted, with students participating in Alabama, New York, Utah and more. McKenna read every submission, and with consultation from historians and colleagues, the list was ultimately narrowed down to ten finalists.
Four of the 10 finalists are Southern Utah natives, including Kamary Cambell, Faye Olsen, Max Wells and Willard. The ten final essays were reviewed by 13 judges from around the country, and prizes were awarded for best use of personal experiences (the Grace Levy Award: $250), best use of themes from the book (the Lee Warren Award: $100) and best overall essay.
With help from sponsors, including the Southern Utah Veterans Home, Avalon Healthcare, the American Legion, Daughters of the American Revolution, the Kayenta Center for the Arts and the Utah Department of Veterans and Military Affairs, McKenna was able to raise over $1,700 for the students’ prizes and the matched awards for their teachers.
One local resident, Terry Dunne, decided to donate $350 so that each of the seven finalists who did not win an award would at least receive $50, McKenna said. In addition to his donation, Dunne served as a judge for the finalists, and is a former staff sergeant and veteran of the Vietnam War.
How the contest came to be
McKenna is a local attorney who was inspired to write the historical fiction novel after the 9/11 terror attacks. In the story, an eighth-grader named Steve O’Dell learns about prominent figures in American history by traveling through time and even meeting a fictionalized version of Joseph Warren, a Revolutionary War hero.
After publishing the book in 2020, McKenna said he wanted to organize an essay contest similar to one featured in the novel. He partnered with the Southern Utah Veterans Home in Ivins to find sponsors and organize judges, commentators and musical talent for the awards ceremony.
“The whole theme of the program was to blend the generations,” McKenna said. “There was a 13-year-old girl that got up and said the Pledge of Allegiance next to a 70-year-old retired staff sergeant. There was a 14-year old boy that read his essay, and then right after it was a 95-year-old World War II veteran that commented on it.”
McKenna said he plans to put on the essay contest again next year. The contest, organized through the nonprofit Help Patriotism Prevail, is intended to help young Americans come to understand their country’s history and gain a sense of patriotic pride, McKenna said.
Information on the essay contest and video of the full award ceremony can be found on the Help Patriotism Prevail website, including Willard’s reading of his essay.
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