Reaching 4 Excellence: Teen earns national gold medal by channeling Churchill

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Many area students spent part of their summer in exciting academic and extra-curricular adventures and competitions that took them across the country and sometimes around the world.  This week’s FOX 4 Young Achiever took his second trip to the National History Day national contest at the University of Maryland College Park and came back a national champion for his portrayal of one of history’s great leaders.

“We shall defend our island no matter what the cost may be,” said Jay Mehta.

The voice may be coming from a 15-year-old but the pocket watch chain in the vest, the dark round eyeglasses, the distinctive clipped speech pattern and the ever-present cigar all evoke strong mental images of one of the 20th century’s truly iconic historical figures. Mehta has Sir Winston Churchill, Great Britain’s World War II prime minister, down to a tee.

“He always had a very determined look on his face,” said Mehta, this week’s FOX 4 Reaching 4 Excellence Young Achiever.  “And he was always very powerful and yet somehow he seemed very relaxed.”

A self-described history nerd, Mehta is especially captivated by World War II.  He’s also a talented writer and performer.  And as an eighth grader, Mehta crafted a smart and exciting 10 minute script centering on Churchill for this past year’s National History Day competition with its theme: Leadership and Legacy in History.

“I found a topic I loved that fit the theme and that provided me with characters for whom it was very easy to write a script,” said Mehta.

Mehta’s 10 minute script had him portraying not only Churchill, his central figure, but also US president Franklin Roosevelt and two other British prime ministers, Neville Chamberlain of the 1930s and the current one, David Cameron.  Mehta performed superbly through regional and state competitions and then took the national gold medal in the junior level presentation category at the National History Day contest in suburban Washington DC in June.

“Winston Churchill is a character and a personality that is larger than life and if anybody could encompass Winston Churchill, it’s Jay,” said Pembroke Hill School history teacher Dan O’Connell.

O’Connell sponsors the National History Day Club at Pembroke Hill where Mehta is now a freshman.

“Jay is astute,” said O’Connell.  “Jay understands the structure of a winning entry.  And makes sure, it’s not mechanical, but there are ways to convey your message.  And every prop, every gesture, every word, he made sure was organically written in such a way as to tell the most powerful story.”

Mehta didn’t just rely on his impressive acting and writing skills in becoming a National History Day national champion.  He went to great lengths to enhance his presentation by researching original materials and by interviewing people who actually lived through the events that he spotlighted.

“And that, for a history nerd, is sort of a dream come true,” said Mehta.

“I just think he went so deeply into Winston’s life and the details of The Blitz in Britain and Hitler’s thoughts and the strategies and was able to synthesize and distill that into a very tightly composed and well and dramatically performed presentation,” said O’Connell.

“I sat down with file after file of documents that touched the hands of Churchill and Eisenhower and Truman,” said Mehta.

Mehta did hundreds of hours of research that included visits to the Truman and Eisenhower presidential libraries and the National Churchill Museum in Fulton, Missouri.  And he personally interviewed a World War II American military pilot and a British survivor of The Blitz.  All that preparation to channel Churchill paid off in a big way for Jay and far beyond the national gold medal.

“I can do my best to create a good performance,” said Mehta, “but whether I’m national champion or never made it out of region, I still had a lot of fun and I still learned a lot which is what I’m going to keep with me, not the medal but my knowledge.”

Mehta has also been awarded the Salute to Courage Award by the National World War II Museum.  He will represent Missouri at the grand opening of the new Campaigns of Courage – The Road to Tokyo Pavilion at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans in December.

To see video of a special performance by Jay Mehta in July at the Truman Library, which sponsors National History Day in the Greater Kansas City region, CLICK HERE.

And for information on National History Day, CLICK HERE.

Fox 4 News is Working 4 You to spotlight outstanding young people and their positive accomplishments.  In our weekly report called Reaching 4 Excellence we meet young achievers in subjects like academics, the arts, leadership, community service, volunteerism, career exploration, overcoming obstacles and heroism.  Watch for Reaching 4 Excellence every Wednesday on Fox 4 News at 9 p.m. and every Thursday on Fox 4 News at 8 a.m. and noon.

Phil Witt, Fox 4 News