Hutchison High School senior Warner Mentch walked into the Patrick B. Cole Fairbanks City Hall last week on the pretense that he would watch new enlistees get sworn in to the armed forces.
Fairbanks Mayor Jim Matherly was there and so was the president of the Board of Education, Tim Doran, along with a representative sent by Gov. Mike Dunleavy. U.S. Marine Sgt. James D. Robinson stood in dress uniform at the front of the room.
Mentch, accompanied by his parents, looked a little confused and then Robinson announced the real reason he was invited to city hall: the 18-year-old won a Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps scholarship, Marine Corps option, worth $180,000.
Mentch was handed one of those oversized symbolic checks and then Matherly, Doran and others took turns congratulating him and making speeches. The representative from the governor’s office handed Mentch an Alaska flag.
“Boy was I surprised,” the teenager said a couple of days later.
The announcement was still sinking in.
“I think it will hit me once I head off to college,” Mentch said. “It’s really amazing to have the opportunity. I definitely plan to pay it forward.”
Mentch is the first person from Fairbanks to win the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps scholarship since 2010, according to Robinson, who mentored him.
Only half applicants up and down the West Coast met the qualifications for consideration, Robinson said.
Mentch, an apprentice blacksmith in Hutchison High School’s Information Technology cluster, said he is hoping to study engineering or pre-law at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. He was born in Arizona and has lived in Alaska twice as well as overseas. Fairbanks has been home for Mentch since the seventh grade, he said.
Scholarship applicants were judged on physical fitness, academics, integrity, leadership and community involvement. Mentch prepared himself for the fitness test by training with military enlistees getting ready for boot camp. By accepting the scholarship, he is obligated to serve four years in the military. He comes from a family of military veterans and said he is considering making it a career.
Mentch will be a midshipman while attending university and will attend officer candidate school in Quantico, Virginia, according to Robinson.
When he graduates, Mentch will be commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps.
Mentch’s stepfather, Carl Kohntopp, credited Robinson for inspiring Mentch and helping him pursue the scholarship. Kohntopp said Robinson is “not your typical recruiter.”
Mentch and Robinson met during a routine military recruitment call.
“As a Marine Corps recruiter, part of my job is to make telephone calls to school lists to attempt to contact students to see if they are interested in serving in the military after high school,” Robinson wrote in an email. “While calling the Hutchison High School 2021 list, I made contact with Warner Mentch and later met him in person when he came into my office for more information.
“I saw potential in Warner Mentch because he was a very well educated, well spoken and driven individual. He was physically fit and motivated in nearly every aspect of life,” said Robinson, who has assisted 24 people with enlisting in the Marine Corps and mentored dozens of others looking to join the military or get into a military academy.
“Warner Mentch helped others during workouts and was always on top of everything,” Robinson said. “I knew that he had great potential to become a leader in the Marine Corps.”
Mentch said he learned about the scholarship from Robinson, who prepared him.
Last summer, Mentch met two or three times a week for two-to-three-hour workouts with Robinson and others.
“We did it at the recruiting office,” Mentch said. The workouts involved weight lifting, pullups, stomach crunches and more.
Mentch was judged on his time in a 3-mile run as well as his weighted grade point average of 3.86. He earned a 27 on the ACT. He turned in his scholarship application late last year and didn’t think he would be awarded, he said.
Kohntopp and his wife, Chandra, have five children between them and are very pleased.
“It’s a huge amount,” Kohntopp said. “We are definitely thankful.”
Contact staff writer Amanda Bohman at 459-7545 or follow her at twitter.com/FDNMborough.