Editor's Note: Sharlene Wells Hawkes, Miss America 1985, is president of Remember My Service, a production company dedicated to preserving the legacy of service members through content-rich books and ebooks. Sharlene and the Forever Miss Americas served as masters of ceremonies for Celebrate Service & Sacrifice at Patriot Plaza during The Patterson Foundation's Veterans Legacy Summit, in addition to supporting nonprofit organizations in the region during special events. This post originally appeared in Remember My Service's November newsletter.
About a week and a half ago, I had the honor of participating in a very full patriotic Saturday in balmy Sarasota, Florida. What a perfect place to kick off the Veterans Legacy Summit, initiated by The Patterson Foundation. If you haven’t heard about it, you will. I’ve been participating in events as an emcee, speaker, or performer for about 30 years, and I’ve never seen an event so meticulously organized, with such admirable attention to detail and excellence.
The first thing the Foundation asked me to do was be the keynote speaker at the Sarasota Military Academy’s “Patriot’s Day” event. The Academy Cadet students blew me away. It’s a public charter school (zero tuition), with an International Baccalaureate curriculum and a Medal of Honor Character Development program that is truly a model of excellence for other schools nationwide. Just about 1,500 Cadets fill both the middle and high school campuses, with a 100 percent Army JROTC program.
From the moment I arrived to greet my personal escort, Senior Cadet Carl Goodrich—who I fully expect to become the astronaut he wants to be—I knew I would experience something exceptionally American. The entire event was facilitated by articulate, respectful, skilled students, led by Senior Cadet Regimental Commander Whitney Stewart—who has “General” written all over her. After several outstanding cadet speeches, the “Mighty SMA Drum Line” capped off the morning with a spectacular performance. If you’re anywhere near Sarasota, get your children on the waiting list! Huge kudos to the adult leadership (I have to specify “adult” since there was plenty of “teenage” leadership all around) of Commandant BG (ret) Frank Laudano and many others, including my point of contact, SMA Advancement Director Victoria Finley. They have a first-class program that is full of “best practices” any kind of school in the country could emulate!
Later that afternoon, I helped emcee the dedication of one of the most beautiful and reverent facilities to honor veterans that I have ever seen. Patriot Plaza, the first of its kind, is a privately funded amphitheater featuring art installations at the public Sarasota National Cemetery. This public-private partnership between the National Cemetery Administration and The Patterson Foundation is yet another model of excellence in the Sarasota area. This stunning $12-million facility, shaded by a glass structure, can seat up to 2,800 people and includes a stage to hold a 55-piece orchestra. It was appropriate that the West Point Band took center stage for the dedication. As the massive American flag was hoisted high above the amphitheater and stage, would you believe that a bald eagle circled over the cemetery and facility? Yes, it’s true—and not a planned part of the program.
There’s a reason why The Patterson Foundation—led by president and CEO Debra Jacobs—wanted to partner with the federally run veterans’ cemetery. The patriarch of the Patterson wealth was West Point graduate James J. Patterson, and there is a long history of service in this family. In 2008, when The Patterson Foundation attended the groundbreaking ceremony for the Sarasota National Cemetery, along with 3,000 others in the middle of a hot Florida July, they decided that a special gathering place—with shade—should be built to honor the military service of more than 100,000 veterans living in the area.
A huge thank you to organizations like The Patterson Foundation nationwide who see a way to pay tribute to our veterans and make it happen! Your tangible gratitude is an inspiration to all of us.
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