An Oklahoma City pastor praised the first class of Silver Knight winners from the stage of the Dade County Auditorium in April 1959.
"If we had more of this sort of thing in America, we wouldn't go around shaking our heads and saying, 'Our young people are going to hell,' " said the preacher, Dr. William Alexander.
One of the students sitting in the audience that night was William Conti, a 17-year-old senior and piano prodigy from North Miami High who had just been named the Silver Knight in music.
Although Conti went on to win an Oscar and three Emmys and compose the music for the Rocky series, his Silver Knight award is prominently listed on his professional biography.
For 49 years, the Silver Knights program has been honoring high school seniors who are standouts in their academics and extracurriculars.
In the beginning, students were nominated in one of 10 categories. One -- citizenship -- was dropped and others added over the years, most recently new media in 2003, which honors students for their digital designs. Today, students compete in 15 categories.
The awards recognized only Miami-Dade County students until 1984, when a Broward County program was added. Silver Knight awards were given to Palm Beach County students from 1985 through 1990.
In the early years, winners each received $200 and a silver statuette.
The prize money now is $1,500, plus a statuette and a round-trip airplane ticket. The Silver Knight awards are sponsored by American Airlines and the Blank Family Foundation.
Through their schools, students all over South Florida submit nominating letters and work portfolios to be judged by community leaders in various sectors, many of whom were former winners. A personal interview helps judges narrow down their choices to a winner and three honorable mentions in each category.
The nominees and winners -- there have been more than 16,000 students honored since 1959 -- come from all walks of life, but common threads connect them.
Many winners compare the moment they won to receiving an Oscar at the Academy Awards -- complete with the dressy evening-wear worn at the ceremonies. They remember who else was nominated in their category. And they keep their silver statuettes on prominent display.
"I have met a lot of people, who are at the top of their careers, who still look back at the Silver Knight award as the pinnacle of their academic achievement," said David Landsberg, president and publisher of the Miami Herald Media Company.
Former Miami Herald publisher John S. Knight brought the award program to Miami in 1959 to honor high school seniors who excelled in both academics and community involvement.
As far as winners go, Conti is not alone in his success after being named a Silver Knight.
Beverly Counts Rodrigues, the media relations director at Florida International University, and Dexter Lehtinen, a former U.S. attorney in Miami and former state senator, are both Silver Knight winners in citizenship.
North Bay Village Mayor Joseph Geller won his statute in the social sciences category.
Miami painter and digital artist Xavier Cortada is a vocational-technical Silver Knight.
The list goes on.
Of the hundreds of winners, The Miami Herald tracked down six to recall their memories from their winning night and what it has meant to them since.
SILVER KNIGHT LUMINARIES
* YEAR WON: 1963 * CATEGORY: Citizenship * HIGH SCHOOL: Miami High * NOW: Chief judge of Miami-Dade Circuit Court, former Miami Shores mayor. Lives in Miami.