By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Special to the Bulletin | Published June 23, 2016
CLARKESVILLE—As he plowed through Habersham Central High School with his nose to the grindstone, John Paul Hamilton faced competition close to home that kept him on his toes as the ninth of 12 children of Dr. James and Pamela Hamilton.
That healthy dose of sibling rivalry from his 10 brothers and one sister, strong parental support and his deep Catholic faith inspired him to give his utmost and exceed his own expectations, graduating from Habersham Central in Mount Airy as salutatorian among 374 classmates.
“You always have people pushing you to improve. You always want to beat them in that sibling competition going on. I’ve always had big shoes to fulfill with my older siblings so I’ve always tried to better improve myself in that way,” John Paul reflected.
The salutatorian will attend Belmont Abbey College outside of Charlotte, North Carolina, as a scholarship recipient in the Honors Institute program. He and his family live in Clarkesville and attend St. Mark Church.
He said he never considered himself among the smartest kids in his class but early on determined to study hard and prioritize academics. By his junior year his schedule got very intense and he struggled to get adequate sleep. As he juggled homework for Advanced Placement classes and band practice, he found himself grinding out assignments past midnight.
“I took a lot of classes. A lot of people who had been dedicated for years started hanging out with friends and not doing their homework. My idea has always been to just do the work and finish my studies and rest during the summer,” he reflected. “I’ve never been a very smart student, but I always worked hard because I wasn’t. I was trying really, really hard, and other people who could fly by didn’t try as hard as I did.”
He also followed the example of his parents. “My parents always encouraged me to work really hard, which I saw exemplified in how hard my dad works as a doctor, and my mom combining care for children with household duties.”
Making his teacher laugh daily
John Paul played clarinet in the marching band and wind ensemble, enjoying the camaraderie and challenges of playing classical music like Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A major. His senior year he served as section leader, which required him to build his leadership skills.
An avid reader of fantasy and other books, John Paul loved his language arts classes, especially the discussions and persuasive writing where he learned to express his arguments more articulately. He also participated in a mock trial team, developing an interest in the law.
“Mock trial helped me realize how fun being a trial lawyer could be and how the justice system works in the courthouse,” he said.
His junior and senior English teacher, Dr. Rhea Galati, called him “an incredible writer” who grew a “tremendous amount” in her classes. She recalled how in reviewing for the three-hour AP English exam he stayed after class to discuss why his answer didn’t work and better understand the correct response.
“John Paul is a person that loves to learn and demands the most from himself and his teachers. He grows in every area, regardless of the class,” wrote Galati, who has taught several Hamilton brothers.
She also appreciated his dry sense of humor, intelligence and “ability to make me laugh every single day.”
“John Paul is soft-spoken and very polite, so his very dry sense of humor is surprising and refreshing to people who don’t know him well. It also speaks to his incredible intellect.”
Perhaps more of a leader than he realized, John Paul set high standards for her entire class. “He exhibited an excellent work ethic and leadership skills in both of my English classes. He is one of those students that strives for perfection in his work and is not satisfied till he meets his incredibly high standards,” Galati said. “I can depend on John Paul to be one of the leaders in my class, always working above my expectations and producing exceptional work. He thinks on a deeper level than the average teen and has the exceptional quality of a curious mind. He is not just satisfied with knowledge, he wants to know the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of the situations as well.”
Challenged, he dug deep into Catholic faith
At Belmont Abbey John Paul plans to major in both English and government and political philosophy and later to attend law school. He looks forward to experiencing a Catholic college. Attending a public school and knowing many fundamentalist Christians challenged John Paul to probe deeper and grow spiritually as a Catholic. He studies Scripture in the meditative lectio divina tradition and prays the rosary. He also reads writings of the saints and theology books, having been especially influenced by “Catholicism and Fundamentalism” by Karl Keating.
“I’m a very religious person—perhaps not enough, but I try. I was constantly being challenged by people at my school, and, in general, with the culture around me. It made me question my faith and try to find the answer. I guess I did. I found it in the church.”
And he has found a sense of equanimity in Catholicism.
“It always pushes me to be more outside of my culture, whatever the issue, even with things going on at school, and to focus on what’s important,” he said. “A lot of people I know had mental or emotional issues during high school and have all these things with relationships they are in. I’ve never been in these scenarios. I thought it was partially due to my faith that helps to withstand emotional turmoil and have a sense of stability.”
Now he’s really excited to grow intellectually and spiritually and “try something new” three hours north at Belmont Abbey.
As for his advice for his younger siblings and those approaching high school: “Be prepared to work hard and don’t limit yourself to what you think you can do because you might be able to do more. I don’t think salutatorian was on my radar as a freshman.”