By the time Scott Stephens of Bangs had finished writing his essay for the VFW’s Voice of Democracy speech contest last November, he was losing his patience.
“I was frustrated with it,” the Bangs High School senior said. “It still wasn’t exactly how I wanted it, but it was time to send it in.”
He made a recording of the essay as the rules require, and submitted it for judging.
Stephens said he never dreamed that his essay would win not only the local and district contests, but also claim top honors at state, where the best essays from 24 VFW districts in Texas were judged.
Winning at state qualified Stephens for a trip to Washington, D.C., next month, as well as a chance to earn a $30,000 college scholarship.
That five-day visit will begin Saturday, and his parents, Mike and Leesa Stephens, are going with him.
“I was very surprised,” Stephens said of the honor while taking a short break from his job at his family’s Subway restaurant in Bangs. After hearing some of the other essays at state, he said his expectations were so low, he decided not to practice reading his essay. As the winner, he was asked to do so in front of an audience of about 1,500 in Austin.
Over 8,000 entries were submitted by high school students in Texas, VFW officials said. This year’s topic was “My Role in Honoring America’s Veterans.”
“I knew about the VFW Voice of Democracy contest because my mom had worked with students on entering that contest in the past,” Stephens said.
His mother, Leesa, teaches government at Bangs High School. Each year she encourages students to enter The Voice of Democracy scholarship program.
The national contest is sponsored by the Veterans of Foreign Wars for students in Grades 9-12. The Patriot’s Pen is a similar contest for middle school students.
“I learned that my essay won the local and district contest at the same time,” Stephens said.
While the essay judging was done from recordings, Stephens has read it at both the district and state VFW meetings.
“You could see it begin to dawn on (Scott) that this is a pretty big deal,” his mother said. “How could you not think it wasn’t a big deal when there’s not a dry eye in the place as he’s reading it?”
“The topic seemed easier than some of the previous topics I’d seen,” Stephens said. “I have so many veterans in my family, I had some ideas about what I could say.”
Stephens’ essay begins by talking about his two grand-fathers, who were World War II veterans. His essay also discusses an uncle and a cousin who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq, respectively.
“I have always been fascinated by the stories I heard these men tell,” Stephens said. “It just seemed easy to put my ideas into an essay.”
Leesa Stephens said that they have family in the Washington, D.C., area, so they have visited there several times before. But Scott Stephens said he’s especially looking forward to a special tour of the White House arranged for the essay winners, and to an extended visit at Arlington National Cemetery.
“It will be my third trip to Washington,” Stephens said.
He will participate in the “Parade of Winners” from each state on Monday next week, and the national winner will read the top essay on Tuesday, March 4.
“Speech professors and graduate students from the University of Texas at Austin judged the essays,” Leesa Stephens said. “The judging panel was at the banquet, and they said they were very impressed. They thought it was the best organized essay. Texas has never finished nationally higher than seventh, so we’ll see.”
Stephens plans to enroll at Hardin-Simmons University to study pre-law. He’s not decided what specific legal field he might pursue.
“I’ll just look and see what interests me,” Stephens said of possible career options.
Stephens is involved in UIL speech and debate events in high school, and is a member of National Honor Society and Jazz Band.
“The Heart of Texas VFW Post 3278 and the Ladies Auxiliary want to congratulate Scott Stephens on a job well done and wish him well in the national contest,” a spokes-person for the Brownwood post said. ”We would love to have more winners from the Brownwood area, so please let us know how we can help you or your student to enter these contests. Teachers, these also make great class projects.”