Delaware Student Wins JFK Essay Contest


Patrick Reilly, a junior at Archmere Academy in Claymont, DE, has won the national John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Essay Contest for High School Students.

Reilly will be honored by Caroline Kennedy during the May 7 Profile in Courage Award ceremony at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston for his prize-winning essay on former Delaware Governor Russell Peterson, who, in 1971 courageously defied corporate interests in an effort to preserve the natural beauty and resources of Delaware’s coastal areas. Reilly will receive a $10,000 award for his first-place essay.

The annual Profile in Courage Essay Contest, sponsored by the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, invites high school students from across the nation to write an essay on an act of political courage by a U.S. elected official. The contest is a companion program of the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award, named for President Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Profiles in Courage, which recounts the stories of eight U.S. Senators who risked their careers, incurring the wrath of constituents or powerful interest groups, by taking principled stands for unpopular positions.

This year, 2,078 students submitted essays from all 50 states and Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico and the Marshall Islands. The essay contest is sponsored by the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation and supported by John Hancock Financial.

Protecting Delaware's Coast: An Act of Courage

In his winning essay, “Governor Russell Peterson: Loyal to Future Generations,” Reilly profiles Peterson, who introduced legislation to protect Delaware’s coastal areas from industrial development despite intense pressure from a variety of interest groups.

“A lesser man would have crumbled under such a harsh rebuke,” Reilly writes, “but Peterson simply replied, ‘Hell, no. I am being loyal to future generations of Americans.’” The one-term governor stayed true to his convictions and kept the bill intact, ensuring “clean waters, pristine wetlands, and excellent beaches that continue to support lucrative fishing and tourism industries.”

Download Patrick Reilly's Essay (PDF)

Not only was the governor’s stance at odds with his predecessors, but, as Reilly writes, “Industrial leaders believed that Peterson, a Republican and former Dupont executive, would surely support further industrialization.” Reilly goes on to explain how Peterson’s Coastal Zone Act “took the nationally unprecedented step of declaring Delaware’s coastline and waters forever off-limits to new heavy industrial development.”

Peterson faced anger and pressure from corporate leaders, labor, and federal officials. The State Chamber of Commerce opposed the bill, construction workers staged demonstrations outside his home, and the Secretary of Commerce claimed that he was “being disloyal” to the country.

Boston Award Ceremony

The winning essay by was chosen by a distinguished bipartisan committee of national, political, and community leaders. Reilly will receive a $5,000 cash award from the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, which will be matched with $5,000 from John Hancock Financial to be contributed to a John Hancock Freedom 529 College Savings Plan. He and his family will be the guests of the Kennedy family and the Kennedy Library Foundation at the May 7 Profile in Courage Award ceremony in Boston.

Reilly will share the stage with this year’s Profile in Courage Award recipients, former Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Marsha Ternus and former justices David Baker and Michael Streit, who are being honored for the political courage and judicial independence each demonstrated in setting aside popular opinion to strike down Iowa’s ban on same-sex marriage. Also being honored is Robert Ford, United States Ambassador to Syria, whose bold and courageous diplomacy has provided crucial support to Syrians struggling under the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

The John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award is presented annually to public servants who have made courageous decisions of conscience without regard for the personal or professional consequences. The John F. Kennedy Library Foundation created the Profile in Courage Award in 1989 to honor President Kennedy’s commitment and contribution to public service.

Reilly first participated in the contest in 2011. He was motivated to try again this year, this time with a deeper understanding of political courage and what it would take to write a winning essay. In his search for a new topic, he came across the story of the Coastal Zone Act in Peterson’s memoir, and determined it would make an excellent topic for his 2012 submission.

Patrick Reilly is the son of Elaine and Michael Reilly, and the brother of two younger siblings, Keelin and Melina. He serves on the editorial staff of his school’s literary magazine and has had articles published in the Archmere newspaper. He participates in Academic Bowl, an interscholastic trivia competition, and is involved in the Model United Nations. Reilly is currently preparing his Eagle Scout Service Project with a local bike trail organization. He plays the clarinet in Archmere’s concert band and the Delaware All-State Band, and is a member of the fencing club.

Reilly’s nominating teacher, Timothy Dougherty, will receive a $500 John F. Kennedy Public Service Grant  to be used for school projects that encourage student leadership and civic engagement.


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