Tonight, the San Diego County Ford Dealers awarded $100,000 to one-hundred college bound high school seniors at their annual Salute to Education. Since 1998 2,101 college scholarships have been awarded to San Diego County high school seniors totaling $2.9 million.

And there is more. At the end of the ceremony, Jasmine Hollis from Valley Center High School won a new Ford Fiesta.

For the past five years, I have had the honor of being the keynote speaker at this wonderful event. I always look forward to shaking the hand of each recipient while asking the question, "What college will you be graduating from?" Pulling the name of the new car winner has always been fun.

I do a lot of public speaking. Often, I have no idea what I am going to speak about until I arrive and get a feel for the audience. Tonight was different.

Last month, I joined members of the Salute to Education Advisory Council in evaluating close to 2,000 applications. Overall, I can't begin to tell you how these youngsters are excelling in the classroom and the community. Some have overcome incredible odds and are still finding ways to serve others. The letters of recommendation affirmed good character for all.

When I looked out at the students tonight I noted, "I could be looking in the mirror."

On Mother's Day in 1963, my mom won two cars just days after my eleventh birthday. The legendary Detroit Tigers broadcaster, Ernie Harwell, made her the lucky recipient of his and hers cars. White convertibles with fire engine red interiors, I could only dream that either the Plymouth Fury or Dodge Dart would be mine some day.

Well, my father had a different idea. Earlier that year, after working 14 years for the Goebel Brewing Company, he and 3,500 co-workers lost their jobs when Goebel's went bankrupt. Suddenly my dad was working two or three jobs to support his family. Through that period, regardless of what else he did, he would always hang on to the mechanic job at the corner gas station. As soon as we took delivery of the cars, they ended up on the corner in front of the gas station with a For Sale sign on both windshields. The cars sold quickly and my parents used the earnings to buy their first home on Northlawn near Seven Mile leaving behind the house on Prairie I was raised in up to that point near Livernois and Fenkell.

With this move came a new school, new friends, and a new discussion that talked about going to college. Melvin Franklin of the Temptations lived two houses from me. Every time he saw me, he would ask with his deep voice, "How are you doing in school?" During the rare times my father saw me, he would never stop saying, "Son, promise me you will go to college and get a degree so you can have a better life than mine."

Easier said than done when he definitely did not have the income to support my college education. He must have asked everyone he knew to help send his first-born to the next level of education. Then, while taking his car to be serviced, he asked the dealer George Higgins if he could help. Last year, I discovered a Time Magazine article titled The Senator's Hobby. I learned Mr. Higgins had been sending kids like me to college since the year I was born in 1952.

When I graduated from the University of Detroit with degree in Political Science, I became the first in my family to make that claim. However, I would not be talking about it today without the philanthropy of George Higgins Pontiac on Woodward Avenue.

How ironic that I can tell these stories to kids that received their scholarships from a car dealer here in San Diego; along with being able to show the impact of winning those cars after all these years.

Appreciation makes most people feel better than anything you can give them. God knows, I have a lot to be thankful for and the Salute to Education Class of 2011 was challenged tonight to do the same by being winners in the biggest game of all - the game of life; and by spending their heaven doing good on earth.

I pray God will continue to guide them to service before self, while remembering what Jackie Robinson once said, "A life is not important except in the impact it has
on other lives."

On April 30, 2011, the Jackie Robinson Family YMCA will impact kids and families in San Diego County's most critical community at the 15th Annual Tribute to Jackie Robinson & Scholarship Gala. Tickets are still available. Go here for details!