Silver Knight success stories: Where are they now?

05/06/2007 3:01 AM

09/08/2014 5:33 PM

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

JOSEPH FARINA

* YEAR WON: 1963 * CATEGORY: Citizenship * HIGH SCHOOL: Miami High * NOW: Chief judge of Miami-Dade Circuit Court, former Miami Shores mayor. Lives in Miami.

As a scrawny teenager in 1963, Joseph Farina sat across from then-Miami Mayor Robert King High during his Silver Knight interview at Miami's Dupont Hotel.

The mayor posed a question that remains fresh in Farina's mind:

"If you were an elected official and a personal issue presented a conflict to your job, what would you do?" the mayor asked.

Farina's response -- that his responsibility would be with the citizens who voted for him -- has served him well during his 28 years as a Miami-Dade Circuit Court judge and two years as Miami Shores mayor.

High was one of the Silver Knight judges who gave Farina the citizenship award.

It was a surprise to the studious teenager, described by teachers as "a pint-size dynamo" who presided over Miami High's student council, had a place on the swim team and graduated in the top 5 percent of his class.

"I remember that night, hearing them talk about the honorable mentions, and it wasn't me, so I was just thinking what an honor it was to even be nominated," Farina said.

"Then they started to describe the winner," he said.

"I didn't catch on until the very end that they were talking about me."

Farina went on to study at George Washington University and received his law degree from the University of Florida.

Being involved with the Silver Knights program helps students long after they leave high school, said Farina, 62.

"When a college director or prospective employer sees that line on a résumé, and they ask about it . . . they begin to appreciate that the person sitting across from them is really quite special," he said.

ABBE FINBERG

* YEAR WON: 2001 * CATEGORY: General Scholarship * HIGH SCHOOL: Nova High * NOW: Graduated from Harvard University in 2005, works in economic consulting. Lives in New York.

Once a Silver Knight, always a Silver Knight.

Judges gave Abbe Finberg the 2001 award in general scholarship partly because of her volunteer tutoring work, her aptitude on flute and her exceptional academics.

Six years later, at age 23 and living in New York, Finberg is still at it.

She tutors a fifth-grade public school student every week after work. She plays in a musical trio for fun and plans to begin performing in hospitals and senior centers. And she is considering a leap back into academia for a master's degree in economics.

"The process of applying [for Silver Knights] forces you to look over what you've done and what you hope to continue to do in the future," Finberg said. "A lot of that was the volunteering I did in high school.

"Volunteering is something I'm thankfully still able to do," she said.

Finberg, who has struggled to overcome dyslexia throughout her education, graduated from Nova High in Davie with a 3.98 GPA and majored in physics at Harvard University.

She found an interest in economics during her senior year and followed it to a consulting job in New York.

Finberg said she enjoys the arts and cultural events New York offers but misses the "green and warmth" of South Florida. She would like to move back at some point in her life.

Finberg met with first lady Laura Bush in 2002 after winning a National Achievement Award from a group that helps provide audiobooks to blind and dyslexic students.

Like the night she won a Silver Knight, meeting Bush was a moment Finberg says she won't forget. And it reminded her what she could accomplish, even when tasks seemed difficult at first.

"If you break down a task into small enough pieces and do what you enjoy, things are definitely possible, even if you don't expect them to be," Finberg said.

"And after you work hard, it feels wonderful."

JEFF BEZOS

* YEAR WON: 1982 * CATEGORY: Science * HIGH SCHOOL: Miami Palmetto * NOW: Founder and CEO, Amazon.com. Lives in Seattle

Jeff Bezos remembers feeling larger than life when he was called to the Dade County Auditorium stage to receive his Silver Knight award for science in 1982.

"As a high school senior, it felt like I'd won an Academy Award," Bezos said. "The program was really fun. The lighting was very cool."

A few years after winning, Bezos continued to find himself in the spotlight.

An Internet pioneer, Bezos is founder and CEO of Amazon.com, a venture that turned him into one of the world's youngest self-made billionaires.

But despite the accolades he has achieved for his business savvy, Bezos looks back at the Silver Knight as the award that provided the most motivation to go after his goals.

"That was the first time I got any formal recognition for being a good student," Bezos said in a telephone interview from Amazon headquarters in Seattle.

"At that tender age, getting some recognition really helps you stay on the right track," he said.

Bezos graduated top in his Miami Palmetto Senior High class. At Princeton University, his focus shifted from physics to computer science and electrical engineering.

He worked for several Wall Street firms after college, applying computer science to the stock market.

Soon, Bezos saw the Internet rising in popularity, and he came up with a business plan in 1995 to sell books online.

Since then, Amazon.com has grown into a one-stop retail shop where consumers can browse and buy thousands of products, not just books.

Now 43, Bezos still proudly displays his Silver Knight trophy.

He says students shouldn't be afraid to pursue what interests them, even if it means changing their original plans.

"If you love science, follow that and see where it leads. If you love literature, follow that," he said.

"I've seen people who try to force passions on themselves. It never works."

TED HENDRICKS

* YEAR WON: 1965 * CATEGORY: Athletics * HIGH SCHOOL: Hialeah High * NOW: Retired after 15 NFL seasons, inducted into Hall of Fame. Lives in Chicago.

He was class president, starred on four varsity teams and aced his honors science classes, but Ted Hendricks thought the Silver Knight award would go to his athletic rival, Larry Rentz.

"It was a very well-kept secret," Hendricks recalled. "I was on pins and needles along with my family. When the announce- ment was made, I was very, very happy."

Both young men had standout football seasons. As quarterback, Rentz took his Coral Gables High team to the state championship, winning an Athlete of the Year award in the process. The 6-foot-7 Hendricks played defense and offense for Hialeah High, using his height to pull down touchdown passes as tight end.

Hendricks' coach nominated him for a Silver Knight, an honor he credits to his well-rounded education.

"I think it was my academics that swung the vote in my favor," said Hendricks, 59.

Hendricks was a three-time All-American defensive end at the University of Miami. Drafted by the Baltimore Colts in 1969, Hendricks played 15 seasons -- in 215 consecutive games -- and won four Super Bowls. He won induction into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1990.

In 1999, The Miami Herald recognized Hendricks as the No. 1 NFL player ever to hail from South Florida, ranking him over 99 others. His name is immortalized at Ted Hendricks Stadium in Hialeah, which hosts dozens of high school football games each year.

Hendricks, who lives in Chicago but returns to South Florida for charity events and to visit his mother in Miami Springs, says he was able to achieve success in football because his high school coaches and teachers pushed him to try every sport and every subject before he chose his focus.

"My advice [to students] is for them to broaden themselves in all of their fields," Hendricks said. "Don't just try to excel in one area."

FRANCES COOK

* YEAR WON: 1963 * CATEGORY: Social Sciences * HIGH SCHOOL: South Dade * NOW: Served 32 years with the U.S. Department of State as foreign service officer, consul general and ambassador. Lives in Washington, D.C.

Frances Cook's professional life has been full of firsts -- first U.S. woman to head a diplomatic post in the Middle East, first female ambassador to a Persian Gulf nation and first diplomat younger than 35 to become an ambassador.

Her first first: bringing a Silver Knight award to South Dade High in 1963, the school's first.

"I was just flabbergasted when the school decided to nominate me, and I won," Cook, 61, said from her vacation home in Provence, France. "It was a terrific honor for the school and for me. It was a small, rural school back then. Small and remote."

Now a bustling school with 2,500 students from the Homestead area, South Dade is a different place than when Cook attended.

Cook, who often returns to Homestead to visit her 93-year-old mother, knew from a young age that she was destined for foreign diplomacy. In 7th grade, Cook read a memoir from a former ambassador and fell in love with the job.

"We had to write an essay about what you want to do when you grow up," Cook said. "I thought that was the neatest career you could think of."

It motived Cook to become active in politics. She led a group of Dade County teenagers who supported John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign, and she volunteered in community outreach programs.

Cook joined the Foreign Service in 1967 soon after graduating from Mary Washington College. Midway through her precedent-setting career, she received a master's degree from Harvard University. Cook now serves on boards for about 10 businesses and charities.

"The main thing Silver Knights did for me was show there aren't any limits on what you can aspire to," Cook said. "Coming from a rural high school, I dared to dream big after that. I figured, 'If this can happen, maybe other things can happen.' "

JIMMY MORALES

* YEAR WON: 1980 * CATEGORY: General Scholarship * HIGH SCHOOL: Miami Beach Senior High * NOW: Lawyer, former Miami-Dade County commissioner. Lives in Coral Gables.

Among the plaques and trophies that dot Jimmy Morales' Miami law office, his Silver Knight statue attracts the most attention.

"People know exactly what it is without having to read it," Morales said.

The 1980 general scholarship winner excelled academ -ically at Miami Beach Senior High, but what made him stand out among his peers were the community-service projects he initiated.

Morales paired high school students with senior citizens in his adopt-a- grandparent program, and he tutored Haitian immigrants at Miami Edison High to help them adjust to their new lives in South Florida.

Something clicked for Morales during those front-line experiences with the community. He realized he had a knack for helping others.

Winning the Silver Knight award cemented in his brain that standing up for others was what he wanted to do as a career.

"That pushed me along the path of wanting to stay in the field of public service," said Morales, 45, who served the communities of Coral Gables, Key Biscayne, Miami, Pinecrest and South Miami in his eight years as a county commissioner.

Now in private law practice, part of his duties include serving as Marathon's city attorney. Morales earned his undergraduate and law degrees from Harvard University.

Like several other former winners, Morales also has served as a Silver Knight judge. Year after year, he says he is "blown away" by the achievements of the nominees.

"People complain about every generation, but when you go to an event like Silver Knights . . . it gives you hope that each generation is producing a group of young people who still care about other people in their community," he said.

Winning a Silver Knight is about more than an extra line on a college application, Morales said.

"This is the first step toward a lifetime of being good at what you do."

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