ST. PETERSBURG -- For once, Blaine Krauss is nervous. At 18, he has sung and acted in several states and on foreign soil. Yet he's not so sure what he will say to President Barack Obama on June 18.
"I would probably say, 'you are the reason why I watch CNN every day,' " said Krauss, who graduates Thursday from the Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs High School. "You are the reason why I joined student government."
Or he will say nothing.
"Dumbfounded" is how Krauss fears he will appear when he meets Obama.
The White House reception will be a pivotal moment for a young man whose vocal abilities have soared alongside his academic career, culminating in a rare honor among his peers. Blaine Krauss is one of four 2010 Presidential Scholars in Florida, the only one in the state in the performing arts category.
His grades are strong — SAT 1040, grade-point average 3.8. But by all accounts, it is Krauss' tenor voice that has carried him this far.
Yvette Lewis, an opera singer in Maryland, was one of the Presidential Scholar commissioners who voted for Krauss.
"I have to tell you, that kid jumped off the page with me," said Lewis. "I am going to try to be as calm about this as I can, but I loved this kid, I really did."
A BORN SINGER
Even before he could talk, Krauss was mesmerized by sound, his mother said.
Denise Wilson thought she had a preacher on her hands. When Krauss talked, people listened. He sang and sang, for his grandmother, for his aunt, for their friends. The requests were so frequent that he started to charge $1. Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder and old soul were favorites.
The first time Blaine Krauss got up on a stage at McDonald Elementary School in Seffner he was 6. He sang about saving pennies. His mother was in tears.
"He comes alive on stage," said Wilson, 36. "You can tell it's where he was born to be."
He discovered theater at Progress Village Middle Magnet School in Tampa, where as a sixth-grader he landed the supporting lead role in a performance of the musical Once On This Island. As an eight-grader, a scholarship took him to the 2006 Frenchwoods Theatre Festival in New York.
Krauss was hooked. His next stop was Blake High School for the Arts in Tampa, where he majored in voice and became vice president of the Gay-Straight Alliance. He was only there for a year when his mother divorced his stepfather and the family split up. Krauss moved to St. Petersburg to live with his grandmother. The departure from Blake devastated him, but a week before classes started, Krauss was scooped up by Gibbs' PCCA program.
As a junior at Gibbs, Krauss and several students were selected to travel to Scotland for the 2009 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It was a high honor: only 50 other high schools were invited to perform. The catch: the PCCA class had to raise nearly $92,000 to go and perform Ragtime.
To raise the money, Krauss and the other students performed as often as four times as week.
"He was probably at every single one of them," said Keven Renken, chairman of the theater department in the PCCA program. "Who is going to charm a bunch of sweet ladies out of their money better than Blaine Krauss?
"He just sings like an angel."
THE ROAD TO D.C.
From a national list of about 3,000, up to 141 students are chosen as presidential scholars. It is an award that does not include a financial scholarship, but carries a prestige that can last a lifetime. There have been 6,000 scholars since the program began in 1964. They include Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (1967); Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and former National Poet Laureate Rita Dove (1970) and Yahoo vice president and editor-in-chief Srinija Srinivasan (1989).
Most of the winners earn it through their SAT scores. Along with 40 other high school seniors, Krauss was put on the semifinalist list because he was a Top 2010 student in the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts' YoungArts program.
That brought his application, which includes a part-time job as a drama coach at the Royal Theatre Arts Academy, in front of a 13-member commission.
"I loved his essay, the things his teachers wrote about him. I was just so impressed," said Lewis, the commissioner who voted for Blaine.
She took her interest a step further.
"I was so curious about him that I came home that night and did a Google search and found him on YouTube."
She found him there, singing Stevie Wonder's Lately.
"I just knew it," she said. "There was just something about Blaine … I think he's got a bright future, I really do."
Even if Krauss might not know what he would say if he meets the president, he expects to croon for the commander in chief at the Kennedy Center in Washington next week.
Krauss plans to sing a favorite of American Idol contestants: Feelin' Good, a standard from the musical The Roar of the Greasepaint — The Smell of the Crowd.
He is not nervous of that.
Researcher Will Gorham contributed to this report. Reach Luis Perez at (727) 892-2271 or [email protected]