by Eric Proctor,
Catawba College News Service
"They came from all corners of North Carolina. Two hundred fifty-three boys poured onto Catawba College's campus June 16 for the annual American Legion Tarheel Boys' State program, but some didn't have to travel very far.
Chris Johnston, John Misenheimer, Dustin Ritch, Michael Rothwell, and Matt Stevenson were among 14 local boys participating in the weeklong program. Misenheimer, Ritch, and Stevenson are rising seniors at South Rowan High School, Johnston is a rising senior at North Rowan, and Rothwell is a rising senior at East Rowan.
And although these young men did not travel far to attend, their participation in numerous activities leading up to their June 24th graduation took them miles down the road toward understanding more about the structure and operation of North Carolina State Government.
"We pack an awful lot in a week," said Administration Coordinator Roger Cooke of King. "We have all kinds of things going on."
Most of these activities are designed to meet the program objectives that aim "to develop civic leadership [and] a keen interest in the detailed study of our government."
In a non-partisan atmosphere, participants take a hands-on approach to learning how state and local governments function. Citizens, as the participants are known, develop an understanding of the responsibilities of citizenship by creating and living under their own mock government.
According to Cooke, the boys or citizens were divided into separate cities and counties, and assigned to either the "Nationalist" or "Federalist" party. They then assumed political responsibilities such as creating budgets and writing bills. Ultimately, they elect a slate of officers to govern them.
"We started electing the mayor of the city," said Dustin Ritch. "The whole week started on a localized level, and now it's statewide."
The full days of activities often resulted in long nights.
"The night we had to create the party platforms, we started around 11:00, and finished around 3:00," explained Chris Johnston.
Matt Stevenson had seen worse. "That's nothing. My roommate would get up around 5:30 and run, and I would get up with him. One of our guys was just getting in when we woke up."
According to Michael Rothwell, good intentions were quickly sacrificed. "The first night, we all went to bed around 11. Now, it all depends on what time your committee gets finished."
John Misenheimer had also seen the trend. "The first day, I got up at 6:45. Progressively throughout the week, you start getting up later and later."
The boys had to be at the flag raising ceremony at 8:40 a.m. The optional breakfast began at 7:00 a.m.
Despite the full days, however, there was time for diversions from the world of politics. There was free time each afternoon, during which the boys got to choose their activities.
"They participated in soccer and tennis, volleyball and swimming," said Afternoon Activities Coordinator Ricky Horrell of Burgaw. "A little bit of everything. And everyone loves weightlifting."
Ritch, Johnston, Misenheimer, and Stevenson all played softball. Misenheimer also took to the court in the basketball tournament.
But, the activities were not limited to athletics. The boys could choose to take part in the Boys' State jazz band and chorus, compete in the oratorical contest, or audition for the talent show. Another option was Moot Court, in which the boys were given the fact in a case they must research and argue before the elected Supreme Court.
The laughter and smiles were indicative of the fact that the boys had fun, but Director Roy Pressley of Waynesville believes that Boys' State also provides a learning experience that prepares them for the real world.
"It's a wonderful program for boys looking for a political career," said Pressley, "any portion of a political career."
Chris Johnston agrees. "It really helps you get a point of view on how politicians make their decisions. It's not like you can just look at the television and tell how bills are passed."
Some of these boys may go on to follow in the footsteps of famous Boys' State alumni such as Michael Jordan, Tom Brokaw, and Neil Armstrong. Or, they may return to the program as volunteers, like Ron Wilkins of High Point who attended Boys State and Boys Nation in 1978 and has been coming back ever since.
"It's been over 30 years," said Wilkins. "I've got to meet people here and there, but every year I find that the young men are doing well in life, and because of that I believe that this program is a success."
For more information about Tar Heel Boys' State, visit the program's website at www.tarheelboysstate.com.
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