NEW PORT RICHEY — On June 3, the fifth anniversary of her husband's death, Marjorie Hitchcock opened up her morning newspaper and says she found the perfect way to honor his memory.
On the front page of the Pasco Times was a story about the record-breaking 10 valedictorians from Land O'Lakes High School — nine from the International Baccalaureate program and one traditional — who were set to graduate that evening.
Hitchcock got her scissors and clipped their photographs and individual stories out of the paper. Then she wrote 10 checks for $500 each. It was about 10:30 a.m. when she climbed into her GMC Terrain and headed to the Dollar Tree to purchase 10 graduation cards. From there, she made the trek across the county to the school to deliver her gifts to the noteworthy grads.
"I'm 86 years old, and I've never heard of 10 valedictorians from one school anywhere," Mrs. Hitchcock said. "It really inspired me. The thought just came to me. I just wanted to do something for them."
And so would her husband, she figured, if he were still alive.
Russell Ward Hitchcock, served in Air Force for 33 years, retiring with the rank of colonel from a career that spanned World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars. He was also a graduate of Ohio State University and Case Western Reserve Law School.
The colonel and Mrs. Hitchcock, a Florida native, raised four daughters in the Tampa Bay area and lived for a time in a community near Land O'Lakes High.
"He was always gung-ho on education," said Mrs. Hitchcock, a grandmother of 12 and great-grandmother to 10. "I know he would be saying, 'Three whoops and a rah for you, Marj.' "
Upon arrival at the school, Mrs. Hitchcock was met by assistant principal Jeff Morgenstein. Because the seniors were not at school that day, he promised to deliver her cards to the students at Friday's graduation.
"What a lovely tribute," said Morgenstein, who saw to it that each card was tucked into the large envelopes holding the paper diplomas that would be distributed to graduates when commencement was finished. "I'm still stunned. We don't even know what to say. We just find that to be such a beautiful gesture."
And an unexpected one.
"I was actually completely in awe, said IB valedictorian Elizabeth Olatunji. "I thought it was amazing that someone we didn't even know could do something like that. It was so sweet of her."
Fellow IB valedictorian Jeffrey Gu was so caught up in the moment that he didn't even open his envelope when it was first handed to him.
"I took a few pictures with friends, saw my family and then we went out to dinner," he said.
Then he got a call from fellow valedictorian Albert Brotgandel.
"He said, 'Dude, open your envelope,' " Gu said. "I saw the card and the check, and I was like, 'Oh, wow.' It really caught me off guard."
"I was really glad, but honestly not because of the monetary gift. I was happy because what I have done in high school — what I have done in my life so far — reached and inspired someone like that.
"We all worked hard through high school, and seeing that someone has noticed and appreciated our hard work really makes me want to keep going," Gu said. "It makes me want to try to make a bigger impact on the world — to do good things.
"I just want to thank her for her gift. I think it's awesome."
Contact Michele Miller at [email protected] Follow @MicheleMiller52.