- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 25, 2004

Washington isn’t notably a town full of free spirits, except, of course, the alcoholic variety. So each year, Al Neuharth, the 80-year-old godfather of USA Today and founder of Freedom Forum, sets about disproving such a canard by feting as many free-thinking souls as he can pack into a banquet at the National Press Club. They include 102 American high school seniors and three honorees of distinction picked for achievement in deed as well as thought.

That more than qualified Wednesday’s main man of the hour, Greg Mortenson, 46, of Bozeman, Mont., as deserving of the 2003 Al Neuharth Free Spirit of the Year award and the accompanying $100,000 check.

The founder of the Central Asia Institute, who began on his own 11 years ago building schools with local help for children — mainly girls — in remote areas of Pakistan, he was a slightly embarrassed standout at the ceremonial event in a striking blue-and-green tribal chief’s robe from Afghanistan, where his empowerment-for-peace program also is active.

In spite of ongoing war and cultural difficulties, he has managed to build 34 schools and educate 10,000 children in both countries. “A penny buys a pencil; give me the money for one cruise missile, about a million dollars, and I can build 50 schools,” he noted. “If you educate a boy, you educate an individual. Educate a girl, you educate a country.” Girls stay home and change a generation — the solution to poverty and a factor in fighting terrorism, he believes.

After hearing himself eulogized by a svelte and sexy Rep. Mary Bono — the embodiment of powerful American womanhood, who praised him for “doing God’s work” — Mr. Mortenson unburdened himself of the robe by putting it over the shoulders of his host before hailing him as tribal leader of the free spirits.

“I’m a man of few words and a lot of actions,” Mr. Mortenson said, the closest he came to an immodest statement the whole night.

Also honored with Free Spirit awards were civil rights activist Dorothy Height and 10-year-old Sofi Collis, a former Siberian orphan who had won a competition for naming the Mars rover robots Spirit and Opportunity. Miss Height received her second award of the day — her 92nd birthday — following a ceremony earlier in the Capitol Rotunda, where she was presented with the Congressional Gold Medal.

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