The Priest and the President

March 23-29, 2006
The Priest and the President
By Connie Cissell/ SUN editor
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
Father Joseph Champlin Receives Volunteer Award from President Bush

ROCHESTER — On the bone chilling morning of March 14, dignitaries and members of the press waited for Air Force One to land at Rochester’s international airport. Those in line to greet the president as he got off the plane included Father Joseph Champlin, currently administrator of Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Warners. President George W. Bush presented Father Champlin with the President’s Volunteer Service Award for his role as founder of the Guardian Angel Society, an organization that has generated nearly $2 million dollars for tuition assistance and technological improvements at Cathedral School in downtown Syracuse.

Among the politicians and others awaiting the president’s arrival was Rochester high school basketball sensation Jason McElwain. The senior is autistic and made headlines across the country when he sank six three pointers and scored another goal during the final minutes of his basketball team’s last game in late February. McElwain was team manager and his coach, Jim Johnson, added him to the roster in hopes of giving McElwain a chance to play if the team got ahead by several points. Johnson never realized the scoring potential sitting on the bench. Video footage from the game was shown on all the major television networks and now arrangements for a motion picture deal are in the works.

McElwain was at the airport with his parents and his coach. He took the spotlight when the president walked the four of them over to the press corral and talked about how McElwain’s story touched the lives of many people. A reporter asked President Bush how he had heard about McElwain and he said he had watched the news reports. “I saw it on TV and I wept just like a lot of other people,” the president said. He put his arm around McElwain and said, “Do you mind if I call you J-Mac? You can call me George W.”

After the visit outdoors at the airport, the president went on to Canandaigua Academy, a public high school about 30 minutes from the airport, to discuss the new Medicare prescription drug benefit in a town meeting setting. Father Champlin rode in the president’s motorcade to the event. There were several American flags displayed along the main street of the town and only a few protesters were out in the early afternoon. Father Champlin said he found out about his award the Thursday before it was presented. More than 475 individuals have received the award since its inception in 2002. President Bush created USA Freedom Corps then to strengthen and expand volunteer service. Father Champlin described the award as a lapel pin with the president’s insignia on it. He said he’s delighted to be honored.

“This award came to me but it really belongs to the 2,500 members of the Guardian Angel Society, three dozen mentors who are working with our youngsters, Kathy Fedrizzi and her assistant, the administrator, the teachers and all of our kids,” Father Champlin said.

Father Champlin found the president to be very gracious and courteous and willing to take the time to shake hands and sign autographs after his presentation at the high school. When the president first stepped off Air Force One, Father Champlin shook his hand and spoke to him. “I told him that when he stated that there are more people who are hungry for democracy and freedom than afraid of terrorism, that the elections in Afghanistan and Iraq demonstrated that. I told him I thought that in years to come that would be noted as the highlight of his presidency,” Father Champlin said. “He told me, ‘I have a few principles and I try to stick by them.’”

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