Stuart Johnson, Deseret News
Bill Farley, left, Jack Thompson, Immaculee Ilibagiza, and Brian Shul at gala.

PROVO — Heroes can come from small beginnings. They can soar thousands of miles above the earth. They can fight for values. Or they can learn to forgive.

Officials of America's Freedom Festival at Provo honored four individuals with 2008 Freedom Awards Wednesday night at the 2008 Freedom Festival Awards Gala held at Brigham Young University's Wilkinson Center ballroom. The honorees, each in his or her own way, personified some or all of the festival's four traditional values of family, freedom, God and country.

From humble beginnings in Rhode Island, with a father who was a postal worker and a mother who worked in a factory, came Bill Farley, living evidence of the reality of the American dream.

Farley was honored by the festival for rising to his full potential, without ever forgetting where he came from or how he got there. Farley is a successful businessman and philanthropist whose charity includes donations to his high school, Bowdoin College in Maine and Boston College.

"I do, even today, practically pinch myself and say, "Wow, how did all this happen?"' Farley said when given a chance to respond to his award.

"I think you folks here in Utah really understand how it does happen. It happens when you start off with great parents who really believe in you, who talk to you about getting a good education, who talk to you about family values."

A lawyer dedicated to protecting children from violence, obscenity and pornography in the media, Jack Thompson was honored especially for his defense and support of families.

Thompson listed the top four moments of his life. No. 1 was when "God the father introduced me to Jesus Christ and said 'welcome home,"' second was meeting his wife and third was seeing his son for the first time.

"The fourth greatest moment in my life is this one," Thompson said. "For 21 years I have opposed the criminal distribution of adult entertainment to children because Jesus said if any of you should cause one of these little ones to stumble, it would be better for you that a millstone be tied around your neck and you be cast into the uttermost depths of the sea."

He said that while his life has been filled with persecution and ridicule, he would go back and do it all over again, with even more fervor than before.

Retired U.S. Air Force Maj. Brian Shul received the award for his longtime defense of the freedoms of American through his distinguished career as a military pilot. Shul was shot down over Vietnam and suffered severe burns, yet returned to the cockpit after a year of therapy.

Throughout his time in the hospital recovering, Shul said he asked God many times if he could die. Later, he realized that he was lucky and he could be a voice for those who had paid the ultimate price for freedom.

After recovering from his crash, Shul went on to pilot the Air Force's SR-71 Blackbird spy plane, which he called a privilege.

"As every military person will tell you, it was a privilege to serve," he said. "It's a privilege, you don't have to thank me. It was voluntary and it was a privilege."

The final recipient of the evening's awards, Immaculee Ilibagiza, was treated to a standing ovation when she was introduced and another ovation when she sat back down.

"It feels like there's some special love in this room," she said "I don't know if it's just Utah or just this place, but I feel so much affection."

Ilibagiza, who is from Rwanda, lost most of her family in the genocide killings in her country in 1994. For 91 days she hid in a tiny bathroom, with eight other women, from the Hutus who were bent on killing any of her Tutsi people.

In her time in that bathroom, Ilibagiza said she learned what it meant to truly forgive the people who had killed her family. For a long time she said that all she could think about was ways to exact revenge.

"After that time," she said, "I felt that all of the anger I had fell off of my shoulders."

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