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Staff Writer

SHIRLEY — It was a full house at the Bull Run Restaurant just after 7:30 a.m. Monday when Verna Johnson-Hughes welcomed more than 50 participants to the first annual Nashoba Valley the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Breakfast.

Organized by Johnson-Hughes and Dolores Guercio, the event brought together a senator, municipal officials, teachers, parents, students and the public for breakfast and to honor essay contest winners, the passion of King, his birthday and the America that was created largely through his efforts.

Former Ayer selectman Charles McKinney was master of ceremonies, asking the audience to remember the word “yes” when he took the podium.

Later, the “yes” was to indicate a positive answer for future breakfasts.

After an invocation by the Rev. Timothy Martin, of New Patriot Congregational Church, and the singing of the “Negro National Anthem” — first written as a poem for the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday — state Sen. Pamela Resor, D-Acton, presented a proclamation from the Massachusetts Senate recognizing King’s contributions.

Earleen Trammell and 8-year-old Clarissa Taggert both sang non-accompanied spirituals, King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was delivered by Thomas Wilson Sr., and eight student essay contest winners — selected from a field of 200 — were honored.

The winners are fifth-grader Rachel Olson, Groton-Dunstable Regional Middle School; seventh-grader Flannery McEvoy, Groton-Dunstable Regional Middle School; ninth-grader Matt DiBara, Montachusett Technical High School; ninth-grader Robert Snelders, Greater Lowell High School; 10th-grader Dan Newell, Lowell High School; 11th-grader Jessica Garcia, Nashoba Valley Technical High School; 11th-grader Abraham Sifakis, Ayer High School; and 11th-grader Travis Pommenville, Ayer High School.

“No question, next year’s celebration will be double this size,” said Selectman Leonardo “Chip” Guercio Jr. “This showing speaks well for the people of the communities and the remembrance of Dr. King.”

Notably “humbled” at the opportunity to speak, Guercio reflected on King’s acknowledgment that “people stand in times of challenge and controversy.”

Today’s challenges include terrorist alerts, the loss of 3,000 soldiers in Iraq, an outcry against killings in New Orleans and an argument over the perception of some that the Bush administration is ignoring domestic issues while spending millions of dollars overseas, said Guercio.

“Dr. King is a shining example of stability and approaching all with love and non-violence,” he said. “It’s our job to fight for what’s right, (and) we must hold close his teachings We must stand and be counted for tolerance, leading by good example, non-violence and peace.”

Dr. Ogretta V. McNeil, Ph.D., a former assistant dean and professor at College of the Holy Cross, single mother and five-time Worcester School Committee member, was the keynote speaker.

She spoke of the limited contact people have with other races and nationalities.

“What we knew then, and in most cases what we know now, about others is often primarily based on what we have heard in the media,” she said. “So many of us were surprised to observe the racial/economic divide in New Orleans.

“Unfortunately, leaders as well as people like you and me have ignored and continue to ignore the truth: (that) race, class and gender matter in America,” she said. “In 1956 when I worked in Bethesda, Md., I was free to walk around in the shops and purchase any item I liked, however I couldn’t try the item on, and I couldn’t return it if it didn’t fit. This was the law.”

In 1965, Rosa Parks challenged the law and King led a boycott responding to her arrest for not getting out of a bus seat when told to. It ignited the Civil Rights Movement, but McNeil said it was King who galvanized Americans, putting the country under a microscope.

“So, I hope that your dream is like his dream that all of us, the Blacks and Whites, Jews and Christians, Latinos and Asian, will live together in peace and love,” said McNeil. “May this dream become a reality for all of us.”

Johnson-Hughes thanked the teachers who ranked the school essays. They are Patrick Miele of Nashoba Valley Technical High School, Richard Duncan of Montachusett Technical High School, Robert Campbell of Lowell High School, Betsy Sawyer of Groton-Dunstable Regional High School and Sawyer’s daughter, Kate, an Assumption College senior.

She also thanked the sponsors for the first annual breakfast. They are Nashoba Publishing, SkinSolutions, the Bull Run Restaurant, Faun MacDonald of Century 21, Griffin Auto Services, Nashoba Valley Auto Body, Robert M. Hicks Realty and Mark McNulty of Re/Max Colonial Realty.

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