Jill Henderson teared up as she looked at the award she won 17 years ago as a senior at Central High School.
"I get emotional thinking about it," she said during an interview Thursday in her Phenix City home. "You just hear so much in the community or in the news about what's wrong in the world, but all these kids are what's right. I mean, they're not jaded yet. There's a drive. There's an ambition. There's a sincerity."
All that good stuff will be on display Tuesday night, when the 40th annual Ledger-Enquirer Page One Awards will be conducted in the Bill Heard Theatre at the RiverCenter for the Performing Arts. Columbus Regional Health is the presenting sponsor.
The ceremony will spotlight 186 seniors and 13 teachers from the 18 local high schools that chose to participate. By the end of the night, approximately 7,800 students and teachers will have been honored in the history of the Page One Awards program.
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The student who wins the Page One Award in the journalism category, called the Tucker-Wilder Scholarship, will receive $1,500. The winners in the 12 other student categories, as well as the recipient of the Sara Spano Top Teacher Award, will receive $1,000. The runners-up will receive $300, bringing the 40-year total to $534,000.
The Page One Awards started in 1976, when former Ledger-Enquirer publisher Glenn Vaughn and former marketing director Merry Tipton got the idea from a similar program conducted by the Miami Herald. The purpose was, as it is now, to celebrate the achievements of those who not only succeed in academics, but also community service -- because education and altruism are at the heart of making the Chattahoochee Valley a good place to live, insists Ledger-Enquirer president and publisher Rodney Mahone.
"There are a lot of success stories within our school systems, both public and private, and there are a lot of kids that are not only achieving academically, but are engaged in the community and doing things on the civic level," he said. "That just takes a lot of effort and work. They're getting it right. They're doing what they need to do for academics and they're excelling, but they're also connected to the community and trying to fulfill the needs that are in the community."
Debbie King, Ledger-Enquirer assistant to the publisher, has been volunteering for the Page One Awards program since 1981 and became one of the coordinators in 1991.
"It matters that we recognize the exceptional talent that's coming out of our schools," King said. "A lot of those students decide to come back and use their talents here."
Such as Henderson.
Back then, her name was Jill Funderburk, daughter of Jan and Shelrea Funderburk, now retired educators from Phenix City Public Schools. Her father became principal of Central High after she graduated.
Although the 1998 ceremony was conducted in the former Three Arts Theatre, the format was the same as it is now.
The art category was the first award presented, and Henderson quickly figured out the presenter was talking about her as the winner's achievements were mentioned.
Besides having a 4.0 grade-point average, she developed an after-school art program for South Girard School students.
After her named was announced, the rest of the evening was a blur for Henderson.
"I was just completely humbled," she said.
Although she felt "unworthy," she also believes "there was a reason I got it. It propelled me to do things I may not have had the courage to do."
Henderson earned a bachelor's degree in graphic design from Auburn University in 2002. She worked for Columbus marketing company Communicorp for 10 years, collecting 13 awards along the way. After leaving last year to work for Columbus digital advertising company Stand and Stretch, she started working on her own from home in November to spend more time with her three sons and establish Ojji Studio with her husband, Josh, a senior administrator with Lockheed Martin at Fort Benning.
The Page One Award gave her confidence, Henderson said, "to follow my heart and understand what I could do with my talent. The judges were not judges; they were encouragers. They were people outside my normal circle who were saying, 'You got this. You can do this.' That really meant a lot to me."
Henderson continues to serve her community. She volunteers at Lakewood Primary School, where she guided her son's class through a winter-themed art project, created a gift with the students for the teacher and monitored the class while the teacher attended a luncheon. She also used her talent to help create a website that raised money to pay medical bills for a friend's ailing son.
And since "eight or nine" years ago, Henderson has been paying forward her Page One Award experience by being one of the program's judges.
She laughed and wondered aloud whether her application could compete with the current nominees.
"They're just off the charts," she said.
Each year, Henderson finds inspiration in the applications and the interviews. She recalled the background of a nominee whose parents were ill, didn't have a car, and she took care of her autistic brother.
"Think about the petty things we get caught up in," she said, "but there's always somebody that's got bigger issues than us if we would just get past ourselves."
The program's 45 judges are key to its success, King said.
"We're very fortunate that we are able to get a good group of community leaders every year," she said. "We're just thrilled that many take the time to do this. Some of them cancel very important obligations when they find out the date of judging so that they can do this again and again."
Ledger-Enquirer news assistant Jenny Chandler co-coordinates the Page One Award program. She has been involved with the program in some capacity since its inception, and she enjoys watching the anticipation build as folks arrive for the event.
"If you go out into the lobby before the program starts and see the people pouring in, the kids are all excited and bubbly and their families are coming in," she said. "It's just incredible."
Chandler also enjoys lining up the nominees back stage before they walk into the spotlight.
"Some of them are really funny, and some of them are very shy," she said. "Sometimes, I have to nudge them because they are so frightened to go out there and identify themselves."
Regardless of their name or school, or even whether they are a winner or a runner-up, Henderson figures all the nominees are in the same category.
"A difference maker is someone that stands out from the crowd by their actions more than their words," she said. "It's about serving and caring for others on every level. The amazing thing about Page One nominees is that they don't let their circumstances define them. When they see a need, again, no matter the size, they do what they can to help out mostly while using their talents."
IF YOU GO
What: 40th annual Ledger-Enquirer Page One Awards, honoring outstanding high school seniors and teachers.
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Bill Heard Theatre, RiverCenter for the Performing Arts, 900 Broadway
Here are some Page One Award winners who went on to achieve notable careers:
Gabriela Diaz (1999, music, Hardaway), violin professor at Wellesley College, critically acclaimed performer
Karl Douglass (1986, English, Spencer), businessman, political director for Jason Carter's 2014 campaign to be Georgia governor
Will Herring (2002, athletics, Opelika), linebacker for St. Louis Rams, played at Auburn University
Franklin Leonard (1996, math, Brookstone), film executive, founder of The Black List, which publishes unproduced screenplays
Colin Martin (1984, social science, Pacelli), financial services professional, former Columbus mayoral candidate, former vice president for governmental affairs at the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce
Josh McKoon (1997, social science, Brookstone), R-Columbus, Georgia state senator serving District 29
Walter Reeves (1984, athletics, Eufaula), former NFL tight end, played at Auburn University
Julia Fessenden Slater (1984, drama, Hardaway), district attorney for the Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit