Since 1938, The American Legion High School Oratorical Contest has provided thousands of young people with a greater understanding and appreciation of the U.S. Constitution, along with the ability to think and speak clearly. Now, The American Legion Department of New Hampshire is providing junior high students with the same opportunity, becoming the only American Legion department to host a Junior High Oratorical Program statewide for students in grades six through eight.

The program will offer an early foundation for knowledge of the Constitution, an outlet to address an audience at a young age and a stepping stone for the Legion High School Oratorical Contest.

The department recently held its 11th annual Junior High Oratorical Program at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at St. Anselm’s College in Manchester where four students vied for the $500 top prize. The contest consisted of two parts. First, a three- to five-minute prepared oration on any part of the Constitution and second, a two- to three-minute speech on an assigned phase of the Constitution selected from Articles or Amendments that the judges chose by lottery. Judges all hailed from New Hampshire. The group included Gerry Bernard, department vice commander; James McKay, former Concord mayor and now a member of the State House of Representatives; and John Burke III, vice president and co-founder of Winco Identification Co., in Nashua.

First place and $500 was awarded to eighth grader Roderick Emley of North Haverhill; second place and $400 was awarded to eighth grader Grant Legg of Hampstead; third place and $300 was awarded to eighth grader Wyatt Hoppa of Hampstead; and fourth place and $200 was awarded to eighth grader Virginia Drye of Plainfield. Drye’s brother Benjamin is competing in the Legion’s National Oratorical Contest this weekend in Indianapolis.

“Over 60 percent of the youth who have participated in New Hampshire’s Junior High Oratorical Program have competed in the state’s high school Oratorical Contest,” said Nathan Fernald, state Junior High Oratorical Program chairman. “Out of those 60 percent, just about half of them have won the state competition and gone on to represent New Hampshire at the national contest.”

Fernald helped the department get the program under way by establishing a Junior High Oratorical Program committee. The committee currently includes a Legion representative from the state’s eight districts, and committee members are responsible on a yearly basis to contact their local junior high schools and home-schools in an effort to introduce the program. If there’s interest from school administrators or parents of home-schooled children, an information packet about the program is mailed and a follow-up call is provided. Each district holds its own contest and sends two contestants to the state competition. During the district and the state competition, participants are allowed to use note cards for reference, without penalty, if they lose their train of thought.

“What makes me feel good about this program is the support I’ve received over the years from the department,” Fernald said. “The department has taken the program under its wings to make sure it stays a successful program.”