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Overland Park student wins national award for history monologue as Churchill

Jay Mehta, 14, of Overland Park took first place in the individual performance category at last month’s National History Day competition at the University of Maryland. He spent more than 300 hours preparing a 10-minute monologue as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, complete with cigar. Here he portrayed Churchill during a presentation for history teachers July 17 at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library in Independence.
Jay Mehta, 14, of Overland Park took first place in the individual performance category at last month’s National History Day competition at the University of Maryland. He spent more than 300 hours preparing a 10-minute monologue as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, complete with cigar. Here he portrayed Churchill during a presentation for history teachers July 17 at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library in Independence. Special to The Star

The desk in front of Jay Mehta is littered with scraps of history.

Fragile pince-nez glasses look even older next to black circular frames popular in the 1930s.

And most 14-year-olds don’t own a cigarette holder and a black top hat.

But they’re vital tools for Kansas City’s latest national champion, fresh off a first-place individual performance in last month’s National History Day competition.

The circular frames mimic glasses made to order for Winston Churchill. President Franklin Roosevelt wore rimless pince-nez glasses throughout his life to correct nearsightedness.

Jay weaves these props into a 10-minute monologue highlighting the British icon’s stalwart defense of Europe in World War II. He takes on the roles of four characters, including Churchill — growling at an assistant in a believable British accent — and Roosevelt.

Olathe’s Vanya Shivashankar brought home a share of the Scripps National Spelling Bee championship on national television in May, armed with a large vocabulary and nerves of steel.

Jay, from Overland Park, was never live on ESPN, but he spent more than 300 hours reading books, scanning documents and watching documentaries to build his masterpiece.

It sounds like a lot of work, but every minute is essential to reaching the upper echelon of the competition.

More than 600,000 students from around the country and American schools around the world are competing, according to Gary Pettit, a spokesman for National History Day. Just 2,971 came to the national contest in Washington this year.

Five other Pembroke Hill School students also dived into biographies this year, but Jay’s doggedness set him apart.

“He’s like a treasure-seeker,” said teacher Dan O’Connell. “He does what historians do and digs and digs and digs. Some kids will hesitate to call up a primary source — not Jay.”

A seventh-grade social studies teacher at Pembroke Hill, O’Connell is sponsor of the school’s National History Day club.

That relentless drive powered Jay through regional and state competitions, where he bested hundreds of middle schoolers to punch his ticket to nationals at the University of Maryland.

He’d been to nationals once before, in sixth grade, but his speech on the Battle of Stalingrad lapsed into a nervous blur in an auditorium packed with about 300 people.

“I had never seen a crowd like that before, and I flubbed,” Jay said. “The judges couldn’t understand a word I said.”

The stage fright stung. He’s performed for as long as he can remember, whether it’s been on a drum set, in theater, or dance.

He took a break in seventh grade and took roles in two school plays.

“It was a bit discouraging,” Jay conceded.

Then a collection of British humor caught his eye during a visit to Oxford University’s bookstore last year on a family trip to London. He started reading, and the topic for his second run became clear.

“There was so much Churchill in there,” Jay said. “He was hilarious.”

Even better, he was a perfect fit for the 2015 theme — “Leadership and Legacy in History.”

Documents from the Truman and Eisenhower presidential libraries in Independence and Abilene, Kan., supplemented research. The Franklin D. Roosevelt library sent material from New York. The family also took a day trip to Fulton, Mo., to visit the National Churchill Museum in February.

He interviewed a World War II pilot and a survivor of the London Blitz bombing raids to get a firsthand perspective on fighting and surviving in wartime Europe.

He also sourced props from costume shops, esoteric corners of the Internet and his dad’s closet to bring his characters to life.

“You can’t just say ‘I’m Franklin Roosevelt,’” Jay said. “You have to show the audience your character instead of telling them, so we had work into the iconic pieces of each character.”

Nearly 3,000 amateur historians made the trip to Maryland, but this time Jay shut out the crowd. He performed, handled 10 minutes of questions from historians and archivists, and waited for the results.

Other presentations highlighted Jacobus tenBroek, founder of the National Federation for the Blind, and U.S. Rep. John Lewis’ civil rights legacy. Two focused on Frances Perkins, FDR’s secretary of labor and the first female Cabinet member.

But Jay and Churchill couldn’t be denied.

Jay joined the winners of other categories, including personal essays, documentaries and exhibits as a National Endowment for the Humanities scholar. The National WWII Museum invited him to represent Missouri at the opening of a new wing.

He performed July 17 for a private conference of history teachers looking to bring National History Day to their own schools at the Truman Library.

Jay will probably compete again next year, but no topic has struck him yet.

“I have time,” he said.

For now, his mind is on the next big project: high school.

To reach Austin Huguelet, call (816) 234-4298 or send email to dhuguelet@kcstar.com.

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