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Excellence in the spotlight

After winning the top Sterling Scholar honors and $2,500 in scholarships, Richard Wells wished he could say he was going to Disneyland.

Instead, a nice dinner would do. And a night away from homework.

"Hopefully, my teachers will understand," the Woods Cross High senior said. They probably will, considering he earns A's in chemistry classes at the University of Utah, is a U. research assistant and has received the highest possible scores on Advanced Placement chemistry, biology, calculus and American and European history tests.

Wells received the prestigious General Scholarship Award and $1,500 at the 40th annual Deseret News/KSL-TV Sterling Scholars Awards Ceremony Wednesday evening. He also was named Sterling Scholar in the science division of the competition, which entitles him to another $1,000 award.

"It's nice to know the work you do is recognized by people who know things other than sports matter," said dance Sterling Scholar Kelby Debenham of Mountain View High School.

Former Deseret News education editor Lavor K. Chaffin established the Sterling Scholars program for that very reason. A Florida newspaper's program celebrating academics served as a model for the first Utah awards, given in 1962.

Since then, Sterling Scholars has grown to become one of the state's most prestigious academic honors, opening further scholarship and tuition waiver opportunities at 15 area colleges and universities.

Thirteen of 195 finalists received Sterling Scholar honors in academic categories as diverse as computer science, dance and foreign language. Two runners-up in each category received $250 cash awards.

The scholars take accelerated classes and earn top grades and stellar scores on college entrance and other exams. Some are first in their class, have netted top honors at prestigious national competitions and earned scholarships in early-developed areas of expertise.

But they do much more than study. As Woods Cross music Sterling Scholar Barney Lund puts it: "Half my life is music. The other half is divvied up among everything else."

Sterling Scholar winners are student body officers, published authors, illustrators. Woods Cross computer science Sterling Scholar David Muhlestein's spoof of a "Blink 182" video even aired on MTV.

Business and marketing Sterling Scholar Jonathan Liljegren has put his trade knowledge to work for the Boy Scouts of America. He is lodge chief for Order of the Arrow, publishes a magazine thrice annually, plans camps, develops training and helps run an online store.

"It's about as close as you can get in terms of youth experience to running a large, national corporation," said Liljegren, captain of Mountain View High's blimp squad.

English Sterling Scholar Paul Felt of Ogden High School is a member and guest artist with the Ogden Symphony and Ballet Youth Guild, a student pilot and scuba diver.

Foreign language Sterling Scholar Benjamin Blaylock, who has studied German since the seventh grade, is a magician and member of Orem High School's "Ultimate Frisbee" intramural team.

Social science Sterling Scholar Mikel Lindsey Gajkowski edits the Skyline High School newspaper and has interviewed dignitaries including U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy. Nevertheless, taking care of her three younger siblings following the death of her mother, JusDean, is Gajkowski's most prized achievement.

"I feel my mom here," she said through tears of joy after receiving her award. "I've never been so happy."

The honorees, judged on scholarship, leadership and citizenship, were selected from 52 Wasatch Front high schools.

Three winners attend Woods Cross High School in the Davis School District. Alpine School District is home to three winners, two of whom attend Mountain View High School. Provo and Granite District posted two winners apiece; Ogden, Jordan and Nebo schools each had one.

Two additional $100 awards were given to students for excellence in community service and innovations.

The Philo T. Farnsworth Governor's Award, which honors student innovations in the spirit of the Utah-born father of television, went to Janssen Vanderhooft. The Brighton High student is beginning medicinal research in hopes of improving the lives of others.

The Douglas F. Bates Community Service Award went to Britnie Anderson of Murray High School, a member of a student medical team that treated children in Kenya. The award is named after the late school law and legislation chief for the State Office of Education, noted as an advocate for children and quality public education.


E-mail: jtcook@desnews.com