St. Pius X fifth grader Meredith Kononchek can tell you anything you want to know about her favorite president, George H.W. Bush.
Not only did Bush, the youngest Navy pilot of his era, survive after his plane was shot down in World War II, he also was in full command of his faculties, Meredith notes.
“He was stranded in the ocean for three hours on a raft while the waves were pushing him toward the Japanese,” Meredith said. “All he was thinking about was his faith, his family and the separation of church and state.”
Facts about all the presidents – not just Bush “41” – are forever swimming inside Meredith’s head for good reason. Last month, the 11-year-old placed first in the nation in the “Presidents” portion of the 2017 Academic Games Leagues of America National Sweepstakes in Wheeling, West Virginia. To achieve it, she outperformed more than 280 of the country’s top players in her fourth- through sixth-grade age division.
“I was just really excited and I never thought it would happen,” she said. “I was proud to represent St. Pius. I worked really hard to get this for Mrs. Fulham (St. Pius X’s outgoing principal) in her last year.”
This year’s Presidents contest probed competitors’ knowledge of the second half of the commanders-in-chief: William McKinley through Barack Obama. (Last year’s contest covered the first half of the presidential litany – from George Washington to Grover Cleveland).
Competitors must master not only what those leaders did during their administrations, but before and after them, Meredith said. Her go-to study guides included the “Who Is?” and “Who Was?” series of biographies; “The Complete Book of Presidents”; and educational videos on the presidents.
She said many of her favorite facts are related to the funny side of the presidents.
“Calvin Coolidge loved to ride a mechanical horse in his bedroom for exercise, except no one knows if he galloped or trotted,” Meredith said, smiling. “His dad was a farmer, so when (Coolidge) ran for president, they took pictures of him on a tractor to get people in rural areas to vote for him.”
William Taft kept a real animal – a cow named Pauline Lane – at the White House. Pauline, known for her copious milk production, was once put on a train to Chicago.
“Except (the travel plans) got mixed up and she accidentally got sent to a slaughterhouse,” Meredith said. “Thankfully, she was saved before she got slaughtered.”
Woodrow Wilson, another lover of farm animals, kept a small flock of sheep during his presidency. “He would give all the wool to people in need,” Meredith said.
Contestants in the Presidents competition rack up the maximum number of points if they answer correctly after the first clue is read out and receive a declining number of points as more clues are rolled out. If a contestant answers incorrectly at any point, he or she gets a zero for that question. Meredith answered all but three of her questions on the first clue.
To prepare, Meredith and her maternal grandmother, Sue Keller, watched videos and held mock contests with one another for hours on end.
“I have some funny ways of remembering things,” Meredith said. “My favorite videos are music videos. They sing songs about the presidents.”
As a prize for bringing home the golden “Thinker” trophy, Meredith’s parents agreed to buy Meredith and her younger sister, Marianne, pet bunnies. They already have the names picked out for each.
“My sister is naming hers ‘Ike,’ after Eisenhower, because she likes his (campaign jingle) ‘I Like Ike,’” said Meredith, a St. Pius X altar sever. “I’m naming mine ‘Poppy’ – for George H.W. Bush!”
Participants must compete in three other Academic Games: On-Sets, Equations and Propaganda. The team from St. Pius X also included Isabelle Anderson (9th place, Presidents); Matthew Conant; Christian Smith; and C.C. Truxillo (13th place, Propaganda). The team is coached by Leah Wehmeyer and moderated by Robyn Miltenberger.