Trace Dennis earns top honors in Patriot’s Pen contest


IMLAY CITY — Though Trace Dennis doesn’t consider himself a writer, he does have an award winning way with words.

In January, the eighth grader at Imlay City Middle School earned the top spot in the state competition in the VFW of Michigan Patriot’s Pen essay contest. He was awarded $1,000 for his efforts. The theme for the 2022 contest was ‘My Pledge to our Veterans.’

Trace’s essay moved on to national competition in Washington, D.C., to be considered among other state winners from across the country.

While he didn’t grab the first place spot, Trace’s Pledge emerged in the 28th spot, and earned another $500 award from the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Trace Dennis, holds trophy for his essay which won high honors in the Patriot’s Pen Contest. Pictured (L to R) Kelly and Ron Ronat (grandparents), Roberta Reid, Trace Dennis, Rosemary Earehart, Butch Earehart, Trish Dennis (mother), Phil Hunkele, Mike LaMarra, back row, Pat Brown and Stu Cameron.

Receiving such high honors is a first for an Imlay City student, and a source of great pride for the Imlay City VFW Post 2492, Imlay City Middle School teacher Mike LaMarra, and of course Trace’s family and friends.

“We are very excited that he placed first in district and then in the state, and took 28th place in the national competition,” says Rosemary Earehart of the VFW Post 2492 Auxiliary. “We just think it’s fantastic and that he did a fantastic job.”

Last week, Trace was recognized by the Imlay City Rotary Club as a special guest at their luncheon meeting.

At the podium, Trace told the crowd that he was grateful, honored and surprised that his essay emerged as the best in the state, says his mom, Trish Dennis.

“He really does not consider himself a writer, but he wrote the essay honestly and from the heart,” Dennis says.

A U.S. Air Force veteran, Dennis says Trace had his grandfather—Vietnam veteran Ron Ronat—in mind. Ronat served in the Air Force as well.

That personal connection is what made Trace’s essay stand out, says Imlay City Middle School history teacher, Mike LaMarra. In his 17th year at Imlay City Schools, LaMarra says Trace’s heartfelt words, coupled with facts and figures helped push his essay to the forefront.

“The personal connection he had to his grandfather, and some hard facts and interesting information he included about the percentage of homelessness with veterans made it unique,” LaMarra says. “He put good effort into it and made it more personal and less ‘canned’.”

A requirement for all of LaMarra’s eighth graders, students start working on the essay at the beginning of October. For about 15 minutes each day, LaMarra says, they continue to hone their essays until the submission deadline in December. This strategy works well, LaMarra says, and results in many great works by the young writers.

“You say the word ‘essay’ in class and hear a lot of groans because it seems overwhelming,” he says. “Spreading it out and taking time with it makes it easier for students to tackle the 300 to 400 word requirement.”

In December of 2022, Trace and other standout essay writers were treated to a luncheon at the Imlay City VFW hall, where local and district winners were awarded.

“It was a great turnout–there were about 100 parents and students,” LaMarra says.

Trace earned $300 for takig first place at the district level. Second place writer Chase Omelianoff and other winners also received cash awards.

LaMarra is glad that participation in the VFW Patriot’s Pen essay contest is part of the eighth grade curriculum at Imlay City Schools, adding that it’s a teaching and learning moment for students.

“I think it’s important for them to reflect upon the freedoms and rights they have, as it’s easy to take them for granted,” he says. “It’s important that those freedoms and rights were purchased with a sacrifice from others—whether it’s their lives, or time away from their families and friends, what we have is because of what our veterans have done. It’s a ‘freedom isn’t free’ kind of thing.

Trace will enter Imlay City High School as a ninth grader in the fall. An avid baseball player, he hopes to earn a spot on a team in college and is interested in pursuing an engineering degree.

He is the son of Greg and Trish Dennis of Imlay City.