When Jonathan Ludmir enlisted 150 of his peers to befriend senior citizens, it wasn’t for the recognition.
But when he was named the recipient of a prestigious Miami Herald/El Nuevo Herald Silver Knight award Thursday, the accolades weren’t all that bad.
“I never imagined this,” Ludmir said after accepting a glittering statuette for his achievements in academics and community service. “This is such a big honor. It’s humbling.”
For more than five decades, The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald newspapers have bestowed Silver Knight awards upon the region’s top-achieving high-school seniors.
Past winners include Jeff Bezos, a Palmetto High alumnus who founded Amazon.com, and Ted Hendricks, a Hialeah High graduate who went on to the National Football League Hall of Fame.
“This is clearly one of the top recognition programs in the entire country,” said Miami Herald Media Co. President and Publisher David Landsberg. “It has recognized generations of winners who have gone on to be leaders and successful business people across the country.”
Landsberg said the media company was “especially pleased to be able to recognize both academic achievement and the incredible commitment these students have shown to our community.”
The Silver Knight program works like this: Public and private schools can nominate students in categories ranging from arts to vocational studies.
A panel of distinguished judges selects the winners. There are 15 from Miami-Dade and 15 from Broward.
The awards are presented at an Oscar-like ceremony. Each winner takes home a Silver Knight statuette, a medallion, $2,000 and two round-trip tickets from American Airlines. Three honorable mentions in each category are awarded $500 and an engraved plaque.
This year was among the most competitive on record. The number of nominees topped 700, and their resumes raised the bar to a new level.
Take Anthony Schiappa Pietra, the winner for athletics.
A cross-country runner, Pietra was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma during his sophomore year. But rather than be discouraged, he helped organize a 5K race at Palmer Trinity that raised more than $25,000 for cancer research. The run was called the Tony Trot.
Pietra, 18, organized part of the event from his bed at Miami Children’s Hospital.
“I was motivated by the other kids in the ward,” he said. “We all became friends. I wanted to help them out.”
Through it all, he earned outstanding grades. Next year, he’s headed to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Antoinette Spears of Miami Carol City Senior High took top honors for social sciences. After having a son during her sophomore year, Antoinette created a club at her school to promote safe sex and reduce unplanned pregnancies. She also took part in a project to teach at-risk teens about sexually transmitted diseases.
“I did it all for my son,” said Spears, who will attend Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University next year. “I wanted to be a better parent and provide a better life for both of us.”
As in previous years, Thursday’s ceremony at the Knight Center in downtown Miami was a grand affair.
Its chief sponsors: American Airlines, the Knight Foundation, Baptist Health South Florida and Florida Blue.
The honorees dressed to impress. Some of the young ladies wore floor-length gowns and had their hair swept back in elegant updos.
Parents, grandparents, siblings and friends waited anxiously for the program to begin. Some clutched large bouquets. Others snapped photos and recorded video on their phones.
Each time a winner was announced, the North Broward Preparatory Jazz Band struck up a tune. The audience of about 3,000 erupted into applause and cheers.
Tiffany Kontoyiannis, the honoree for drama, was practically beaming when her name was called.
“This is the best moment of my life,” said Kontoyiannis, a Miami Country Day student who wrote and directed a play meant to discourage bullying.
It was an emotional night for the winners and their families.
Spears fought back tears backstage.
“This is one of my first awards,” she said. “It’s amazing.”
Ludmir, who inspired others to volunteer with the elderly, dedicated his award in general scholarship to Leovel Martinez, a senior citizen he befriended at a nursing home run by Miami Jewish Health Systems.
“Señor Martinez taught me to appreciate the elderly,” Ludmir said. “They have experience. They teach us.”
He plans to keep in touch with Señor Martinez when he heads to Harvard this fall.
Miami Herald staff writer Daniel Chang contributed to this report.