- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 24, 2005

Big hearts and free spirits filled the National Press Club to capacity Wednesday night. Make that generous spirits, as well. The occasion was Freedom Forum’s annual Al Neuharth Free Spirit of the Year ceremony, during which forum officials gave away more than $300,000 in “good will” grants and college scholarships in the name of the forum founder and former newspaper mogul. The program, whose slogan is “Dream. Dare. Do,” amply fit the three key honorees: C-SPAN cable network creator Brian Lamb, 63; fitness guru Jack La Lanne, 90; and 15-year-old competitive surfer Bethany Hamilton. All are headline-makers whose altruism and accomplishments go beyond most mortals’ grasp.

Mr. Lamb told the audience that he was putting the main award of $100,000 into a foundation that would give money to lesser-known individuals working to improve people’s lives.

Miss Hamilton, a victim of a shark attack off Hawaii two years ago, raises money for children with disabilities when she isn’t riding the waves. She wears her scars proudly, making no attempt to hide that her left arm is missing at the shoulder. A seashell necklace hung about her neck as she told onlookers that “surfing is the finest sport ever.”

The irrepressible Mr. La Lanne, so-called godfather of fitness, gave the podium a good grip and preached his familiar message. “I work at living — dying is easy,” he said. “Exercise is king. Nutrition is queen. Put them together, and you’ve got a kingdom.”

The bulk of the giving went to 102 high school seniors — Free Spirit Scholars — from around the country, who also got to spend a busy all-expense-paid five days in Washington meeting professional journalists.

Student humor proved in good repair, with special scholarship winner Eric Gentry telling the crowd, “I’m from Texas, and I really like Washington.” The remark got the biggest laughs of the night.

Ann Geracimos

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