Pontiac High School ag teacher and FFA adviser Parker Bane (center) talks about the journey that led to the Pontiac High School FFA chapter receiving the Model of Excellence award at the National FFA Convention in Louisville, Ky.
Pontiac High School ag teacher and FFA adviser Parker Bane (center) talks about the journey that led to the Pontiac High School FFA chapter receiving the Model of Excellence award at the National FFA Convention in Louisville, Ky.

PONTIAC, Ill. — Members of the Pontiac High School FFA brought back more than some serious hardware from the National FFA Convention in Louisville, Ky.

“Hopefully we can bring a little joy back and a little pride back,” said Jesse Faber, one of Pontiac’s two ag teachers and FFA advisers.

They did more than that.

“This town is ready for some good news,” said one member of the crowd of more than 150 people who gathered at the Family Kitchen Restaurant in Pontiac, just off Interstate 55, to welcome home Faber, fellow Pontiac ag teacher and FFA adviser Parker Bane and 33 members of the Pontiac FFA.

Two days earlier, they had been named as the top FFA chapter in the nation at the 86th National FFA Convention and Expo in Louisville, receiving the Model of Excellence Award in the National Chapter Award program.

According to the National FFA, the National Chapter Award program recognizes FFA chapters that successfully complete a series of activities over the course of a year. Those activities benefit students, FFA members and the community overall.

Pontiac High School FFA was recognized for its recruitment and retention efforts, which include speaking at local junior high schools about the FFA program and the school’s agriculture education program.

The Model of Excellence presentation team was made up of seniors Abby Jacobs and Jordan Johns, with senior Rachel Lauritsen providing technical and IT support.

That wasn’t the only good news for Pontiac. Their food science team consisting of Rachel Schopp, Lauren Cassady, Molly Verdun and Emily Carroll placed ninth in the nation and received a gold emblem at the convention. Carroll placed third individually and received a gold emblem, while Cassady, Schopp and Verdun received silver emblems.

“Boy, you didn’t just put Pontiac on the map — you made it shine bright,” said Jon Kilgore, Pontiac High School superintendent, at the welcome home ceremony for the FFA students.

Only hours before the Pontiac award was announced on Oct. 31, Pontiac was in the news for another reason.

Pontiac Police Department K-9 Officer Casey Kohlmeier and his K-9 partner Draco were killed when a driver crashed into their squad car as it was parked in a turnaround on Interstate 55. That driver has since been charged with driving under the influence.

“It’s been a roller coaster. We’re on a high with what’s happening with the FFA and then the tragic news of Officer Kohlmeier’s passing, a Pontiac graduate and a local boy, so we were real down with that,” Kilgore said.

Faber said the news reached the group in Louisville at around midmorning on Thursday.

“It’s an interesting thing to be at convention because you escape into this world, but that information came and hit some of our students very close to home,” he said.

Within hours, they had some good news to bring back home.

“We came onstage and they did a presentation about the activities that we’ve done and the national officers gave us a plaque and then there was a big moment of silence, then they called Pontiac and you can’t describe the feeling of excitement,” Jacobs said.

“It was absolutely surreal,” said Parker Bane, the ag teacher and FFA adviser who took on the task, in 2003, of restarting the chapter and the ag program after it had been mothballed for several years.

“I’ve got to go home and watch it on my DVR because it’s kind of a blur. We had two kids on stage, and the rest of them were jumping out of their seats and hugging each other,” Faber said.

The 10-minute presentation that Jacobs and Johns made, with another 10 minutes to answer questions from a panel of judges, had to encompass an entire year’s worth of activities. They modeled their presentation on the popular Twitter microblogging format.

“Basically what we did was we framed the presentation around the use of Twitter, and we found a template to make PowerPoints look like tweets,” Bane said. “We took a different spin on it. We knew it was a homerun ball. We were either going to connect big on this or we were going to miss it.”

“We have a @PontiacFFA Twitter page, and one of the ways we evaluate how our activities are going is by looking at Twitter and what our members are putting up there. That way, the officer team has an idea through the use of hashtags because a lot of the time people put their feelings and emotions in these hashtags, so it’s a way for us to see how the chapter feels,” Johns said. “Through the presentation, they wanted us to tell our other 206 members’ story, and we thought Twitter was the best way to do that.”

In June, Pontiac was named the top chapter in Illinois at the state level of competition and in mid-summer, the chapter members knew they were in the top 10 percent of chapters in the nation in the National Chapter Award program.

“They’ve got 10 minutes to cover nine activities, and it’s a tough one,” Bane said.

But when Jacobs and Johns exited the presentation room, a few people had some idea of what could happen next.

“I could not actually be in the room during their presentation, I had to sit outside the room and I was just like — I hope it’s going OK. When they went in there, their faces were like, oh, my gosh, this is it. When they came out, their faces were all smiles. They were completely lit up. They were like this is the best we’ve ever done, so it was a good feeling,” Lauritsen said.

“We walked out and we were smiling and we were very happy. Mr. Bane came over, and we said that was the best we’ve ever done,” Johns said.

“They texted me and said we nailed it, the best we’ve ever done,” said Faber, who was at a different location with the four members of the Pontiac food science team.

Bane and Faber were happy for them, but still cautious.

“I’m glad the students feel good, but you never know what the people on the other side of the table are looking for,” Bane said.

But even as Jacobs and Johns were finished, the work wasn’t done.

“On Thursday, the challenge was that we also had our food science team competing. They did their written test on Wednesday at about the same time that the other girls were presenting, so they were in two different locations in Louisville,” Faber said.

At the welcome home ceremony that was followed by a school assembly, Kilgore said the awards are a testament to those who made the presentations and those who have supported the chapter.

“Everybody who’s in a blue jacket here who attended the convention, there are many people here who aren’t wearing their jackets right now who were a part of this, thank you to everybody who’s helped build this up and reach this point because it certainly is a team and program effort. We’re so proud of you,” he said.

For Bane, the plaques are meaningful, but the win goes beyond the chapter.

“When you sit there and to be recognized as the best in the nation — this is a big country. You don’t do it for that. You do it to do right by the individual students, groups of students and, ultimately, the community,” he said.