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Howard C. Moore, Deseret News Archives
Keith D. West, left, and Lavor K. Chaffin look over the Sterling Scholar categories in 1978.
I think it’s a worthwhile program, and it’s great to see this going on and on like that. It’s a tremendous thing, and I hope it continues. —Keith D. West, former promotion manager at the Deseret News

If student athletes receive acclaim, why not high school scholars?

It’s the thought that prompted the Deseret News to create the Sterling Scholar Awards. Designed as a way to honor scholastic achievement, leadership and community service, the program continues to encourage educational excellence among high school seniors as it has for the past 53 years.

“When we have students like this there is hope and excitement for the future,” said Linda K. Stokes, current director of the Sterling Scholar program.

The program began in its early stages in 1960 when the need to honor educational pursuits was first realized. Keith D. West, former promotion manager at the Deseret News, wrote in a brief history of the program that he and other staff members noticed the paper’s comprehensive coverage of student athletes and sought to extend similar recognition to scholars as well.

Steve Hale, a reporter for the Deseret News at the time, provided additional inspiration. Hale had formerly worked for The Miami Herald, which holds a similar program called the Silver Knight Awards, and provided suggestions, West said.

With an idea to build upon, the Deseret News received approval from the Salt Lake City School District and moved forward. West worked with Lavor K. Chaffin, education editor for the paper, to select a name for the program and 12 categories of scholarship in which students would compete. The original categories included English, Speech/Drama, Mathematics, Social Science, Science, Foreign Language, Visual Arts, Industrial Education, Home Economics, Business Education, Music and General Scholarship.

As for the name, the word “sterling” was selected to accompany the term “scholar” because “sterling by definition is something pure and valuable,” the Sterling Scholar website states.

A mission statement, which is still used today, was outlined as a guidepost for the purpose of the program.

“The Sterling Scholar Awards publicly recognizes and encourages the pursuit of excellence in scholarship, leadership and citizenship of high school seniors in the state of Utah,” the mission statement says. “All nominees are judged equally without regard to religion, sex, political preference or national origin.”

High school principals were invited to submit names of students to the Deseret News in each category, and nominees were asked to prepare a portfolio detailing their accomplishments and qualifications, West wrote.

Interviews were held and qualified judges in each of the categories selected a winner and two runners-up.

The process took a lot of coordination, which West continued to do for 38 years.

“My worst fear was not having judges show up. Fortunately, through all those years, those judges came through,” West said in an interview with the Deseret News. “I appreciate all that they did throughout the years.”

Staying true to the program guidelines has been essential from the very beginning in order to create a positive experience and fair competition for those involved.

“During the time I was involved with the program, one of my many goals was to make sure that all rules were followed and deadlines met,” said Sharon Johnson, director of the Sterling Scholar program from 1998-2009. “It was very important that all students who qualified for the program began on an equal basis.”

Even after only one year, West said the program “caught hold” throughout the state and began to evolve. Within a few years, the program grew from only including Salt Lake City schools to Cache, Davis and Utah counties, and KSL televised the awards ceremony for several years, he said.

The program has continued to progress. The immense interest throughout the state created a need for satellite Sterling Scholar programs. Five regions exist today. All bear the Deseret News/KSL trademark title of Sterling Scholar and are overseen by the founding companies, but all except the Wasatch Front region are administered by local businesses and school districts, Stokes explained.

Stokes said it is likely the “most prestigious statewide scholarship program” and that people take great pride in having been a Sterling Scholar. She said it is common for people to list their participation in the program on applications for school or prospective employment and even in obituaries.

“I think it’s a worthwhile program, and it’s great to see this going on and on like that,” West said. “It’s a tremendous thing, and I hope it continues.”