Two Fort Smith Southside seniors were very close to making this year’s 1997 Academic All-Star Teams. Their stories are so remarkable that we share them here to introduce the exceptional students who were named finalists in this year’s recognition program.

The male finalist is Philip Watson, 17, a married senior with a wife and 4-month-old son. Philip is the son of Nelda and Ray Watson, Baptist missionaries who eventually settled down in Fort Smith. Philip, wife Gina and son Luke are headed to Conway this summer because Philip will begin his studies in music education on a University of Central Arkansas Music Scholarship. Philip, whose hometown church is East Side Baptist Church, plans to attend seminary and study to become a minister of music. A Presidential Scholars nominee and First Chair in the All-State Choir, Philip is also a talented thespian, vocalist and been active on missionary trips in Arlington, Kansas City, Berryville and Washington, D.C.


Among his most significant achievements, Philip lists the birth of his son. “Although it has been difficult, there is also a sense of pride that I feel each time I see my son, Luke Alexander Watson, playing with his rattles or laughing at anyone who walks by. Love fills my heart whenever I feed him a bottle or give him a bath, because in him, I see me; in him, I see the future. With each passing day, I watch my son develop new thoughts and have new experiences. With each passing day, I see myself grown as a student, father and husband. With each passing day … I see.”

Philip’s nomination caused a stir among the judges, some of whom thought naming a student father to the team would send the wrong message. Others, including the editors, applauded Philip for taking full responsibility for his family.


“I don’t have any regrets whatsoever,” he said.

The female finalist, Lisa Stoufer, 19, of Fort Smith, has overcome tremendous disabilities—she has no limbs—to become an honor student, a computer whiz and a member of All-State Choir, where she was 11th chair.


“It’s a challenge all right,” she said of her disability. “I know not to give up.”

She was inducted this year into National Honor Society, an honor she listed as one of her greatest achievements. Her counselor, Dianne Jeffery, said the accomplishment was Lisa’s high school dream.

“Life could not be better. Being in the National Honor Society has made my senior year very special. My confidence is so high that I know that anything I really, really want I will be able to achieve,” Lisa wrote.

After graduation, she plans to work at Beverly Enterprises where she will hone her computer, secretarial and typing skills. She may try college later and study computers, but her ultimate goal is to start her own computer information business and help those who don’t know their way around the Internet.


Lisa, who uses a wheelchair, won second place in the state science fair with a computer project on virtual reality. “At the time, it had just come out, and I did a lot of extensive research. I went to state and was trying to win national. It was quite an experience,” Lisa said.

To help her with her studies, Lisa has an aide, Joanne Townsley, and a computer, which until recently, Lisa activated with a straw. Thanks to a new program called Dictate and Drag, she can activate the computer by voice.

She’s the adopted daughter of David and Elva Stoufer and has spent her entire career in public schools, where she was able to write with a pencil in her mouth and used a stick to tap out letters on an electric typewriter until junior high when she acquired a computer and an aide.

Lisa describes herself as shy, but others who have known her throughout her life say otherwise, characterizing her from the get-go as outgoing, happy, friendly, decisive and extremely encouraging to others.

“Make sure this child wins!” wrote the first tier of All-Star judges.

Age: 17
Hometown: Little Rock
High school: Central High School
Parents: Max and Ellen Brantley
College plans: Yale University, Cambridge, Mass., history and music

“Martha is our most active valedictorian in years,” her guidance counselor at Central High School wrote. And her list of academic activities and accomplishments is fairly awesome. It includes being Central’s top student in the study of German, its top student in math and science, and its top student overall — first in her class of 470.

To have become the school’s top-ranked student, says Guidance Department Chairman Sam Blair, “is all the more remarkable in that this class is loaded with high achievers, including the most National Merit Semifinalists since 1958… . Martha takes all of our most rigorous courses and excels in them all. She made As in six AP classes first semester of this year alone.”

Martha’s accomplishments outside the classroom are hardly less impressive. She has to use the margins and the back of the sheet just to get a portion of them listed: Member of the select a capella singing group at Central, the Madrigals; member of Accept No Boundaries, a group that opposes prejudice and stereotyping; 1995 state winner and five-year participant in Odyssey of the Mind; an elder and Sunday school teacher in the Presbyterian Church; an organizer of the fund-raising group for the planned Central High Museum; president, vice president, and secretary, respectively, of the German Club, the Beta Club, and the senior class; a National Merit scholarship winner; a Stephens Award winner; a Presidential scholar semifinalist; a classical-vocalist semifinalist at the three-state National Association of Teachers of Singing auditions.

All of that notwithstanding, Martha’s principal interest during her high-school years has been music. She’s a mezzo soprano, piano accompanist for both school and church youth choirs, and guitarist in a punk rock band called the Sugar Jets.

“Becoming a musician has been my greatest achievement,” she writes. “Preparing and performing Carl Orff’s ‘Carmina Burana’ with the Governor’s School choir has been the most significant experience in my musical career. It is the most difficult piece I have ever performed, and it revealed to me the joy an enraptured audience can inspire.”

Though accepted at Harvard, Martha tentatively plans to attend Yale this fall. She will study history and music. She’s in no hurry, she says, to decide on a career.

Age: 17
Hometown: Sherwood
High school: Jacksonville High School
Parents: Damita Brooks Casey
College plans: University of Oklahoma, Norman, chemical engineering

Crystal Casey, first in her class of 288 at Jacksonville High School, is a brain, an athlete, a beauty queen, an accomplished public speaker and a volunteer.

“Crystal is always eager to dispel the stereotype for high academic achievers,” wrote counselor Lori Black, emphasizing that Crystal is well-rounded student who excells in every area.

A track athlete, a school basketball and volleyball team member and school Fitness Club member, the honor graduate has also found time to be president of the Drama Club and vice president of the Zoology Club, Teachers of Tomorrow and National Honor Society and placed third-runner up int he MIss Red Devil Pageant.

Chemistry is her current favorite subject, and she credits her 10th-grade chemistry teacher, who encouraged hands-on experiments, with sparking her initial interest in the subject.

Crystal volunteers at her church nursery and has also worked with charity events sponsored by KATV-TV. She also participates in a school-sponsored program in which students spend 60 hours of volunteer for 1/2 unit of credit. That means she has been cleaning up the community and lending a hand at the zoo and elsewhere when groups need volunteers.

A Hendrix Hay’s Scholar and Winner and a member of the Martin Luther King Youth Hall of Frame and Young Achiever award, Crystal almost chose a school closer to home, Hendrix, but picked OU instead because of its chemical engineering program.

A recipient of an NAACP Athletic Award, Crystal said sports helped her social skills, provided easy opportunities for meeting others and proved an easy link to other school activities.

“You get known around school for being involved,” she said.

A track star since seventh grade and a tomboy at heart, her most memorable experience has been representing Arkansas in a duel track meet against Oklahoma in her junior year.

“It doesn’t seem like we practiced harder or were more talented than other teams. I think we were good because we had a heart … a love for the sport,” Crystal wrote. “To some this is no big deal; but to me, this is one moment in my life I will never forget. I believe I have the heart of a champion; now I also have the memories of one.”

Age: 17
Hometown: Crossett
High school: Crossett High School
Parents: Ken and Susan Craven
College plans: Louisiana Tech University, Ruston, pre-pharmacy.

Finding your niche as a teen-ager is hard enough. Finding it three times would seem almost impossible. But Christi Craven did just that.

Because of corporate downsizing, Christi’s father had to move twice in search of new jobs. So her junior high and high school years were split between Benton, Russellville and, finally, Crossett. She excelled in each place (straight As in all of them), though she acknowledged differences in the areas–Central Arkansas, the Ozarks and South Arkansas.

“It was hard,” she says now. “But I realized an attitude can affect everything you do. If you go with an attitude that it’s going to be OK, it may take some time, but you can do it.”

She’s proved that at Crossett and won praise from her counselor for “her determination to make a place for herself.” What a place. She’s third in her class with a 4.06 grade point, winner of a presidential scholarship to Louisiana Tech, where she will study pre-pharmacy. She’s made the Student Council, the Quiz Bowl team, the band (oboe and cymbals) and the Honor Society.

She’s been active in her church youth group, a public school tutor and a bell-ringer for the Salvation Army.

Her vision is broad, too. Despite her move, she stayed in touch with a Russellville French teacher and made a European journey with former classmates last summer. Louisiana Tech appeals, she says, because it’s fairly close to home and she knows people there. Easy to understand. But it’s also probably true, as she wrote in an essay with her A-Team application, “I know that I can be successful wherever I am because I am capable of adapting to new situations.”

Age: 18
Hometown: Jonesboro
High school: Jonesboro High School
Parents: John and Brenda Keech
College plans: Hendrix College, English

Laura’s parents are painters–her father John is a fine-arts teacher at Arkansas State University at Jonesboro, and her mother Brenda is curator at the ASU fine-arts museum–but Laura’s artistic interests are more along the literary lines. She calls herself a voracious reader, has just finished involvement in a community theater production of “Alice in Wonderland,” and will study English at Hendrix College this fall with a view to honing her writing skills. She hasn’t decided yet what career she’ll pursue, though it will probably be arts-related.

Laura ranks 10th in her class academically at Jonesboro High, works after-school at a florist shop, and pursues a variety of physical activities that range from Tae kwon do to mountain biking.

There’s a space on the Academic All-Stars application for the student to write about his or her most significant high-school achievement, and Laura impressed the judges by using that space to write about someone other than herself. “Last fall I began working with the Northeast Arkansas Council on Family Violence as a volunteer babysitter during the Tuesday night support group for battered women,” she wrote. “To me this is certainly the most important, valuable, rewarding project I have ever undertaken.”

Those children she tends each week are a “wildly eclectic, warm, affectionate group of kids”–some smart, some beautiful, most of them having been touched in some way by the abuse suffered by their mothers–and Laura has fallen in love with their courage. “These kids make me laugh and cry harder than I ever imagined,” she wrote. “They have also taught me incredible lessons about strength and courage. I do not really know any of their individual stories [in detail], but I know that they have been through countless times more than I have, yet they are ready to try again. I love being with them and playing and listening with them. I do my best to be there for them and to love them.”

A significant achievement, indeed.

Age: 18
Hometown: Searcy
High school: Harding Academy
Parents: John and Kathy Nunnally
College plans: Harding University, Searcy, major undecided

Some of everything is what Adrienne Nunnally does. She plays basketball, leads cheers and makes All-State Chorus. She maintains a 4.0 and wins academic awards by the bushel — history, English, speech, trigonometry. She’s active in her church group and for three years she’s gone to Honduras to help build houses. Her school counselor, Ed Land, recalls the day when a school assembly program was threatened because the piano player got sick. “Adrienne was given the music before school. She attended her first period class. And at 9:30 a.m. she played beautifully.”

Adrienne writes that her proudest moment in high school was not the winning of scholastic awards. “Sometimes the greatest satisfaction can be found in little successes and unexpected pleasures. I had always been interested in drama, but I had never been able to actually take part in any high school productions until last year. When they announced open auditions for the first musical my school had attempted to produce in 10 years, however, I found myself struggling with a new dilemma. I had always dreamed of being on stage, losing myself in the identity of someone else; here was my chance. But there was one small problem: stage fright. I found myself growing sick at the thought of facing a roomful of people, making myself vulnerable to their criticism. I hated the thought of the possibility of failure. After eliminating my excuses, however, I gathered up my strength and forced myself to take the stage, and I succeeded in getting the role. I find satisfaction in knowing that I was able to overcome a crippling fear and reach a personal goal in the face of possible failure. The achievement was not in the fact that I landed the role, but in the fact that I tried in the first place.”

Age: 18
Hometown: Little Rock
High school: Mount St. Mary Academy
Parents: Michael and Eileen Riley
College plans: Dartmouth College, Hanover, N.H., pre-med

Rosemary Riley is that happy combination of focused student and cheerful person, bubbling but not airy, funny but not silly. She’s the kind of girl who would spend a week of her summer in a Texas border town, teaching English to Spanish-speaking children and learning, she said, that “110-degree weather is not hot if one does not think about it.” Who’s volunteered at UAMS, visiting patients, and at the Francis Allen School, taking care of infants. Who describes herself as “easy-going, with a good sense of humor.”

And while she laughs that she’s always changing her mind about what she wants to do in life (“in first grade, I wanted to be a cashier, since I thought pressing buttons would be fun”) it’s clear that Rosemary knows she’s headed for success, no matter what direction she might take. She’s grateful, she says, for the number of teachers who inspired her over the years, including Sister Louise, the 80-year-old nun who first taught her Spanish.

St. Mary’s valedictorian, the daughter of transplanted Yankees, is looking forward to spending the next few years in New England. She’s considering a pre-medical course of study at Dartmouth, with an eye on studying neonatology in graduate school. (But don’t tell her parents, she says in true teen-ager fashion–they’ve always wanted her to go into medicine and she “doesn’t want to give them the satisfaction” yet, she laughed, to know that her dream and theirs might be the same.)

Rosemary says leaving her family will be tough, but “I”m definitely ready to take on academic challenges.”

“She knows who she is and what she wants to do with her life,” Sarah Wilkinson, Rosemary’s guidance counselor at St. Mary’s, said.

Age: 18
Hometown: North Little Rock
High school: North Little Rock High-West Campus
Parents: Pamela Fox and Gary Rogers
College plans: Baylor University, Waco, Texas, medicine and business

Mindy Rogers has the resume of a workaholic in training. “There are times I thought if I had one more thing to do, I’d fall over and die,” she says, but admits, “If I wasn’t busy, I don’t know what I’d do.”

Mindy has little time to contemplate idleness. She’ll graduate No. 1 in a class of 524 students and as senior class president, a role that only begins with organizing proms, senior breakfasts, awards assemblies and such.

She’s also been a de facto educator, says counselor Mary Taylor, serving on a human relations committee and a committee that studied a revision of class scheduling. “She easily understood the massive intricacies involved in a change of this magnitude and addressed the concerns of her classmates with a vision for resolving problems,” Taylor said.

“Zest” is the word that her English teacher says best describes Mindy, a cheerleader captain and a joiner of amazing depth–from Key Club to Foreign Language Club to Student Council.

Then there’s community work–with her church at the Stewpot soup kitchen, in a math tutoring program, in a reading program for elementary kids.

Awards? She’s been tops in algebra and geometry, a National Merit Scholarship finalist, a winner of numerous school and city awards.

“I do not stand on a single achievement, but a conglomeration of accomplishments,” Mindy wrote in seeking Academic All-Star recognition. It’s almost as if there’s too much in the world to simply focus on one pursuit.

This thirst may explain her career goal. Not just to be a doctor, mind you. But to get a degree in business as well. And become a hospital administrator as well. She’ll have a full scholarship at Baylor and placement in the school’s exclusive University scholars program to help her on the way.

Age: 17
Hometown: Hot Springs
High school: Lakeside High School
Parents: Max and Betty Smith
College plans: University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, creative writing or journalism

She described herself in her Governor’s School essay as “opinionated, sarcastic and … a bit hard-hearted,” but that’s not how others see Susan Smith.

Guidance counselor Fran Lancaster sees “a really great kid … who reads things the ordinary kid doesn’t read, has insights the ordinary kid doesn’t have. … I see Susan as somebody who could become a great scholar or writer.”

The first Lakeside High student to win a prestigious Sturgis Fellowship to the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, Susan isn’t your typical 17-year-old. She’s a reader–she’s just discovered novelist Ann Beatty and she enjoys fiction in The New Yorker magazine–which may explain why she scored perfect 800s twice on her verbal SAT scores. And she’s a looker, an observer of people, and it is this occupation that fills her own writing. “I like to do character studies,” Susan said said. “It’s interesting to think about what motivates people to do the things they do. I like to explore that.”

Hard work motivates Susan, and her advanced placement U.S. history teacher, Carla Mouton, gave her that. “It was a nice change to be challenged, and have to work hard and find out you can meet the challenge,” Susan said. Mouton “required everyone to think. You had to think for yourself, why things happened like they did … [Mouton] was the best teacher I ever had.”

But as deep as Susan gets in things bookish, she’s not one-dimensional. She loves ballet, “hanging out with her friends” and going antiquing. She collects things, like dishes and old lunch boxes (which she’s famous for using at school). She also collects (and has plugged in her room at home) no fewer than 10 antique lamps. We have a feeling Susan will be shining a pretty bright light at Fayetteville, too.

Age: 18
Hometown: West Memphis
High school: West Memphis High School
Parents: Velma Tubbs
College plans: Mississippi State University, Starkville, Miss., chemical engineering

The “wake-up call” comes too late for some people, not at all for others. But Ganell Tubbs heard hers early in life, long before things had gotten out of control. And she heard it loud and clear.

Last year, when Ganell was a junior, she was talking with some friends, one of whom announced her goals. “I thought, not with your grades,” she remembers. “As soon as I had this thought, a voice said to me, ‘What about yours?’ I was stunned. How could I criticize someone else without first criticizing myself.”

Ganell had been a straight-A student through 9th and 10th grades, but had slipped slightly as a junior, making a couple of Bs and even a C in advanced-placement U.S. History.

“I knew I wanted a future, but not until then did I realize that I controlled the outcome,” she remembers. And control that outcome, she did, especially where her grades were concerned. In the first semester as a senior, Ganell scored straight-As, including a 99 percent score in advanced-placement calculus.

But she didn’t suspend the rest of her life to achieve that success. In fact, she missed nearly every Tuesday and Thursday of school that semester pursuing another love: theater. Ganell played a youngster in a Jewish ghetto in the Holocaust play, “I Never Saw Another Butterfly,” a Youth Theater of Crittenden County production. The group traveled to schools all over eastern Arkansas performing the play.

But rather than make up the school work she missed, Ganell “got all my assignments in advance.”

Wake-up call duly noted, Ganell now says, “I now know that having a wonderful future is worth making sacrifices and is a consequence of having a wonderful present.”

And that wake-up call still rings in the ears of Ganell’s guidance counselor, Sarah Allen. “She has a clear vision of who she is and where she’s going,” Allen says. “Ganell is not interested in keeping pace with others. Rather, she’s setting an accelerated pace for herself and others to improve all.”

Melissa Wright
Age: 18
Hometown: Heber Springs
High school: Heber Springs High School
Parents: R.D. and Terry Wilkinson and John Wright
College plans: Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio, anthropology

Ever since she can remember, Melissa Wright has had a driving need to find out all she can about the world.

“My goal is to become a research anthropologist and to help us better understand mankind by examining where we have been,” Melissa says. “I’ve always been interested in that kind of thing, how people are, and I spend a lot of time learning about other people.”

First in her graduating class of 91, Melissa is also an All-Region Band clarinetist and a National Merit Semifinalist who has been active in Beta Club, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Science Club and Student Council and has a longtime stellar academic record with math, science and English awards to her credit.

“When I was younger, my teacher told my mom I studied too much.”

Melissa says.

Her lawyer father, John Wright, has encouraged her to be whatever she wants and has exposed her to travel, taking her on business trips throughout the country. Melissa wants to go global with her travel interest and envisions a tour of duty with the likes of National Geographic in an exotic locale.

Melissa has been preparing for college since the seventh grade, asking her father’s business associates about suitable college choices every chance she’s had over the last two years. She narrowed her choices to two schools—Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio, and Reed College in Portland, Ore.—until Oberlin, with its stronger anthropology program, won out. She’ll spend winter term doing an anthropology-related research project.

Melissa does more than just hit the books. She worked on the high school yearbook, volunteered at the Cleburne County Cares Food Pantry and AETN. She has also been a stand-out athlete in cross country and track and field events and competed at the Arkansas Track Meet of of Champions. She also he has a busy summer planned, working at local restaurant to save money for Oberlin.

Alan Bender
Age: 18
Hometown: DeQueen
High school: DeQueen High
Parents: Charles and Laura Bender
College plans: Harding University, Searcy, education

Alan Bender is a valedictorian and a National Merit finalist. Some might consider those achievements the high points of their school careers. Alan has a different slant. “While I believe academics supersede football, I am most proud of my athletic achievement, because I had to overcome many obstacles. Academics have always come easily to me.

“I did not play football as a junior, but through hard work I earned a starting position [offensive and defensive lineman] as a senior and was named captain. Our season was disappointing, but we made the playoffs. The other seniors and I led the team to the quarterfinals by upsetting two highly ranked teams. After the season I was named player of the year by the local Rotary Club.”

Not that he’s neglected academics. He has a 4.0 grade point average, is a member of the National Honor Society, and has won the Rotary award for the highest math grade each of the last four years.

He has an artistic side, too. He is president of the school choir and has sung the national anthem at basketball games.

Alan participates in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and is active in the Church of Christ at De Queen, particularly the church’s youth group.

Alan’s high school counselor, Judi Ponder, says, “A lot of students have ability, but Alan has the right attitude to use his abilities in the manner in which they were intended. Alan is not conceited about his scores or grades, but he has the self-confidence necessary to make the most of them.”

Age: 18
Hometown: Lincoln
High school: Lincoln High School
Parents: Byung and Sunny Chung
College Plans: Yale University, New Haven, Conn., political science

When Lincoln High School lost its debate coach, 10th grader Lee Chung, already a state champion, met the challenge. He became a “temporary coach,” teaching the team, researching topics, seeking sponsorships. He led the school into the state semi-finals–not bad, teacher Sherry Bell says, for a high school that only has 335 students in grades nine through 12.

While Lincoln High got a debate team, Lee Chung got a “confidence boost,” experience in analytical thinking and a lesson in leadership. When he says leader, he’s not just thinking Beta Club president, though he does head up that club, or Speaker of the House for the state Student Senate, though he was elected to that position. He’s thinking big: “As far [back] as I can remember,” Lee said, “I’ve always wanted to be president.”

This summer, he’ll be inching closer to that goal as he takes his first political job, as intern to U.S. Sen. Tim Hutchinson of Bentonville. His political instincts are good: Asked whether he was a Democrat or Republican, Chung replied: “I’m an independent. I don’t like to say I’m either a Democrat or a Republican … I would miss the greater view” by taking sides.

Before he graduates, however, Lee is doing a little school-level politicking, working to set up a student advisory board that would take a more active role in setting Lincoln High School policy. And he hopes to return to Lincoln someday. “I feel like I owe a lot to this community,” he said.

The first in his class, Lee is the son of an immigrant South Korean who came to the United States “with $200 and built himself up from there” by working in the chicken industry. Bell, Lee’s junior English teacher and independent research instructor, said Lee “has high aspirations … but I’m not going to doubt him. I don’t know if our world is ready for a Korean [American] president, but I am.”

Age: 18
Hometown: Springdale
High school: Springdale High School
Parents: Sam and Brenda Lazenby
College plans: U.S. Military Academy, West Point, N.Y., engineering

To hear Daniel Lazenby tell it, he “leads a fairly normal life.” Nothing much extraordinary to relate.

If so, Springdale must be an extraordinary place if this West Point-bound soccer stopper is ordinary. He’ll finish 14th in a class of 508 and is a National Merit Scholarship finalist.

He’s also a budding entrepreneur. It started as the usual boy-mows-lawn summer gig. But before it was over, he had 17 customers, commercial and residential, and handled everything from equipment purchase and repair to billing and accounting. The hard summer work (on top of helping his folks with the family chicken farm) built a cash cushion for the school year. He also learned a lesson: “I really enjoyed not having a boss… However, the price for this freedom was absolute responsibility.”

It was good training for West Point, which he’ll attend by appointment of U.S. Sen. David Pryor. That, in turn, sounds like a good place for a student described by his counselor as “charismatic, responsible and mature.”

His record includes Student Council and the Boatmen’s Junior Bank Board, but also some more selfless pursuits. With Students Taking a New Direction, he visits elementary schools to talk and spend time with younger kids and deliver a no-drugs message.

Daniel’s normal, too, if being good with people is a normal thing. He’s a school Peer Helper, which means he helps encourage other kids. He was a delegate to a National Youth Leadership forum on Law and the Constitution. He also traveled to England and Ireland in the People to People program.

“He is the student you count on to do the tasks that others avoid,” says counselor Connie L. Williams. “He has a real sense of leadership and gets others to follow his lead.”

Age: 17
Hometown: Maumelle
High school: Central High School
Parents: Louis McAlister, Martha Jett McAlister
College plans: Either Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., or Rice University, Houston, English and chemistry

Jett McAlister’s favorite poetry form is a sestina, a 13th-century poem with 39 lines, his taste in literature runs to Dante and Chaucer and he likes to play a little Chopin. So when it was time for him to go to high school, he picked the one with the “best record of academic excellence”–Central High–even though it meant crossing the Arkansas River to get there.

Now, as Jett prepares to graduate as second in his class at Central High, he’s got a National Council of Teachers of English writing award, the Brown University book award and the School District’s Outstanding Chemistry Student award under his belt. That means that either Harvard or Rice universities–whichever offers the best scholarship prize–will welcome that “rare all-around student,” counselor Peggy Hawthorne says, and “an absolutely wonderful kid.”

Jett currently plans to “go to graduate school, get a PhD and teach [literature or something related] at the college level,” he mused. “But I could fall in love with chemistry and go to med school … I might have a more convenient life” as a doctor, he laughed. His minor? Music, probably.

Jett has a social conscience too, which he’s expressed in his work with Accept No Boundaries, a Central group that encourages peaceful student debate and action on prejudice and other problems. “I don’t know how much we’ve actually done,” Jett acknowledges, “but we’re trying.” He hopes to continue social activism in college, if he can find a similar vehicle.

But What Jett likes to do most is write poetry–mostly about the relationships between adults and children, and the way people interact. “I tend to write alot about the weather, though I’m not a transcendentalist,” he said. “I just find it works as a good metaphor for people.” It first dawned on Jett that he wanted to write, he said, during a trip to the library with his grandfather at age 6 or so. “I thought, you know, I’d really like to have a book I wrote on a library shelf.” He got serious about writing in ninth grade, “pushing” his works on his friends, who he calls his best critics. Odds are it won’t be too many more years before he’ll see that book with his name on it on the library shelf.

Age: 17
Hometown: Leslie
High School: Arkansas School for Mathematics and Sciences, Hot Springs
Parents: Susan Welch and Jerry McDonald
College plans: Yale University, New Haven, Conn., math and science

“Brian McDonald is the most intelligent student that I have had the opportunity to work with in 28 years as a teacher and counselor,” says Paula Branch, his high school counselor. “At the Arkansas School for Mathematics and Sciences, a residential school for the state’s best and brightest students, he is the ‘best of the best.’ ”

Brian’s astonishing SAT score of 1590 may be the best indication that his counselor’s admiration is not misplaced. His academic specialty is math and he recently received the highest score in Arkansas on the American High School Math Exam. His proudest academic accomplishment, though, was his performance in the National Physics Olympiad–he became a semi-finalist, which put him among the top 80 physics students in the nation, even though he wasn’t enrolled in a physics course at the time. He had to prepare for the demanding test as a pastime. He’s currently (May 16) in Louisville, Ky., at the International Science Fair to exhibit a graph-theory project titled “Chromatic Numbers and Graph Sizes” that he created with another ASMS student named Amber Post.

Brian’s early schooling was at Timbo in Stone County, and much of his middle schooling was at the no-longer-extant Tri-County School at Big Flat. He established himself as a high-school math prodigy at Timbo, and was recruited for the math-and-science school at Hot Springs, which he has attended the last two years. It appears that he will become the prestigious young school’s most academically accomplished graduate. A National Merit finalist with an unblemished transcript, he will finish first in his class this month.

He was accepted at Harvard but will attend Yale this fall, and study math and science with no clear career objective in mind. It’s possible, he says, that he’ll wind up as a college-level math teacher.

C. De-Juan Ruffin
Age: 17
Hometown: Pocahontas
High school: Pocahontas High School
Parent: Carol Ruffin
College plans: University of Missouri, Columbia, business or pre-dentistry

Their accomplishments, on paper, might look very different. But that’s because their circumstances have differed, not their internal drive. De-Juan Ruffin credits his mother, Carol Ruffin, for inspiring him to achieve levels of success rarely seen at Pocahontas High School.

Carol was forced to quit college to support two brothers and a cousin after her parents died. And after De-Juan’s father was murdered when the boy was but 3, Carol found herself the sole supporter of two young boys.

“Watching my mother struggle to raise us on a factory worker’s salary has made me determined to surpass all boundaries in life,” De-Juan says, adding that his mother is “really strong and independent. She does whatever necessary to excel, and I got that from her.”

And has he ever used it. DeJuan is No. 1 in his class at Pocahontas High School, the first black student to hold that honor. He has a pure 4.0 average, nothing but As on his high school transcript. Along the way he has won a litany of honors so exhaustive it’s almost comical: Spanish II Award, Chemistry Award, Bausch and Lomb Honorary Science Award, Geometry Award, American History Award, College-Prep Biology Award, Algebra II Award, English I Award, and on, and on, and on.

But the high school accomplishment that might stick with him longest is his time spent at Arkansas Governor’s School. His race alone has always made him feel different than his peers in Pocahontas–there are a total of three black students among 430 at the high school–but Governor’s School taught him the value of all sorts of differences among people, he says.

“In Pocahontas, everybody has the same haircut, everybody talks the same and everybody wears Doc Martens,” De-Juan says, referring to the popular, trendy brand of shoes. “At Governor’s School I was exposed to different kinds of people. Some people bought their clothes at thrift stores, I met people who did believe in Christ and some who didn’t, people who would explain themselves to me and not condemn people for not being like they are.”

De-Juan’s commitment to success came in eighth grade. Before that, “I didn’t make exceptional grades. I wasn’t a bad troublemaker, but I didn’t do that well. Then I watched my mother and she told me, ‘De-Juan, you can do this work, and you’ve got to do it to go to college, and I can’t afford to send you to college.’ ”

That lesson learned, De-Juan turned into an A-making machine, the ultimate payoff, one would expect, for a mother who sacrificed to assure her kids had more opportunity than she.

Age: 17
Hometown: Barling
High School: Fort Smith Northside
Parent: Louis Schluterman
College plans: University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, chemical engineering

Heath Schluterman says the most important scholastic event in his life occurred in the seventh grade.

“To the surprise of everyone, including me, I placed fifth in the state Mathcounts competition. This made me the alternate for the national competition in Washington, D.C. I was overjoyed. This is what I think motivated me to learn the most. My classmates and teachers suddenly started to expect more out of me, and I learned to expect more of myself.”

He delivered, too. He finishes high school first in his class, with a grade point average of 4.43, and he’s won numerous awards along the way. He won first place in the regional and state contests of the Arkansas Council for Teachers of Mathematics, for example. He had the highest score in Arkansas in the American Scholastic Mathematics Association contest, and the highest Arkansas score on the American Invitational Math Exam. Those two accomplishments enabled him to be the only Arkansan to compete in the USA Math Olympiad.

Heath is president of Mu Alpha Theta math club, president of TANO chemistry club, and treasurer/historian of the French Club. He is active in extra-curricular groups as well, treasurer of the Senior Council and treasurer of the Escape Club, an environmental preservation group. He has tutored both classmates and younger students.

His counselor, LaVonda Hartgraves, says of Heath: “He has a probing mind with the ability to be creative. Heath is attentive to detail, self-confident, and truly an energetic, self-motivated and enthusiastic student.”

Age: 18
Hometown: Hot Springs
High school: Lakeside High School
Parents: Marcia and Phillip Smith
College plans: Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.; Emory University, Atlanta; or Rhodes College, Memphis; chemical biology

Michael Smith is about the smartest person in his class at Lakeside High School, and he says his peers are constantly questioning how he got that way.

His answer is usually this: “Academics have always been an important part of my life, and I devote as much time as necessary to making the grade, whether it complies with my social schedule or not.”

An Arkansas Governor’s School student and a National Merit Finalist, Michael is an avid reader and lists Michael Crichton and Tom Clancy as his favorite modern authors, but he likes the classics, too: Edgar Allen Poe’s short stories, Walt Whitman’s poetry and the novels of James Joyce, William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

But books aren’t his only interest. A few of his hobbies include fly fishing on the Little Red River near Heber Springs, a sport her learned through a brother-in-law. Michael also loves the outdoors and sailing.

He is talented on the violin and has played in Youth Orchestra and the Hot Springs Chamber Orchestra. This spring he won first place in word processing at the state Future Business Leaders of American competition.

Michael is graduating second in his class of 155 with an amazing 4.533 grade point average in AP and honors classes as diverse as U.S. history, French, English, calculus, chemistry and physics. The past four years, he has participated in Duke University’s Talent Identification Program, where he studied Russian, film and video, marine biology and behavioral ecology and psychology, mythology and literature.

“I just chose each year what sounded like fun,” Michael said about the wide-ranging summer courses he took.

He is on the waiting list for Harvard and has a “good feeling” about getting in. His other college choices are Emory University or Rhodes College. He plans to study chemical biology as background for a pre-med curriculum. He wants to go to medical school at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. His father is a radiologist, and Michael has designs on being a surgeon.

This summer Michael is taking a three-week European tour with schoolmates, then he’ll spend the rest of the summer working as a hospital orderly.

Age: 18
Hometown: Blytheville
High school: Blytheville High
Parents: Laddie and Pauline Whaley
College plans: Tennessee State University, Nashville, agricultural business

High school didn’t exactly start with a bang for Larry Whaley. He needed reconstructive knee surgery. He had a severe case of chicken pox. He missed a lot of school. His grades fell.

But Larry never stopped struggling. And he senses today that his struggles helped inspire his teammates, who rebounded along with him.

Bad grades for Larry Whaley meant a 3.5 average, by the way, and he was a straight-A student by his senior year. He achieved similar improvement in basketball, leading a conference champion team that won 22 of 27 games this year. “Seeing my friends and teammates prepare for graduation and being successful in athletics were highlights in my high school career,” he says.

Larry will finish 14th in his high school class. Says counselor Betty Church. “Larry has the whole package–brains, looks and confidence.” Voice, too. Larry made the all-region choir as a bass. He loves upbeat music, spirituals particularly. And he has his sensitive side. “I like love ballads, too.”

Larry is also a six-time state finalists in the Odyssey of the Mind competition for creative thinkers. His specialty: structures. In this, students use balsa wood, glue and an Exacto knife to create structures to build load-bearing structures. Biggest load wins.

Larry has passed his talents on to others by coaching a community basketball team for pre-teens, volunteering at a city food pantry and helping with nursing home recreational activities.

“There is,” says counselor Church, “no doubt in my mind that Larry Whaley will be a great success in life.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture thinks so. It has awarded him a full scholarship. He figures he’ll still have time to play basketball and baseball as a walk-on. Undoubtedly, he’ll continue to inspire.

Age: 18
Hometown: Hoxie
High school: Hoxie High School
Parents: Bob and Linda Youngman
College plans: Lyon College, Batesville, economics

If Bobby Youngman’s list of accomplishments had been complete by age 16, if he had sat back and rested on his laurels at that point, he would have had plenty to feel good about by most people’s standards.

But Bobby Youngman is not most people.

When Bobby was 7, he was diagnosed with cancer and a tumor was removed from his lower abdomen. The cancer soon re-emerged and more surgery was required, followed by extensive chemotherapy, Bobby missed the second half of the second grade and almost all of the third grade. The chemotherapy left Bobby almost totally deaf, but he persevered.

“It was a challenge, being in public school,” he says, “and I had to rely on a lot of help from friends and people around me. Hoxie is a small school, and that enabled teachers to give me more individual attention.”

For about eight years, Bobby struggled, but thrived, before making a bold move. His high school guidance counselor, Phyllis Cook, remembers:

“He read everything he could about his illness and convinced his parents and a very reluctant medical staff to allow him to have a cochlear implant. Not only has it been successful, it reaffirmed his determination to be normal and to be successful.”

The electronic hearing aid, implanted in Bobby’s head, has done more than allow him to hear better. “I think that had I not had the implant, I would not have had the confidence to run for office,” he says.

Yes, Bobby’s into politics, and in a major way. It began when he was elected as an officer of his high school’s Future Homemakers of America group and really caught fire at American Legion Boy’s State, where he was elected state treasurer by a 2-1 margin.

A serious young man who obviously has always taken school seriously–he has a 3.89 grade point average and made an impressive score of 30 on the ACT–Bobby says “few experiences can influence a person quite as much as politics. It can take a common person and make him great.” Conversely, Bobby also knows politics “can warp a person’s values, and it can be the ultimate ruin of a man.”

A mature and balanced view from a young man who was forced to confront the realities of life as a very young boy.

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