DIXON – If you want to be a master of the globe, it helps to trot it.
Jack Bontjes, a 14-year-old eighth-grader at St. Anne Catholic School, will compete in the National Geographic state bee March 31 at Illinois State University in Normal.
He wouldn’t have gotten there without racking up a lot of frequent-flier miles.
Over the holiday break, he and his mother, Susan, traveled to Morocco, Africa, thus crossing off the seventh and final continent on his to-visit list.
“It sure was a point of pride,” Jack said. “I’d been waiting to go to Africa for quite a while. Once I set foot, I felt like I’d accomplished something pretty big. This geography bee is pretty big for me, too, though.”
He put in about half an hour each night in his study guide, which is full of questions and answers from previous bees, but he said seeing it, believing it, speaks much louder volumes.
“You get to experience places and memorize it by that. You’re not reading a book. You’re remembering it by what you did there.”
Jack’s got big shoes to fill and, he hopes, outstride. Two years ago, now-Newman Central Catholic High School sophomore David Swegle placed 11th in the state.
His initial goal? To surpass him. As a man of the world, though, there are no boundaries.
Jack first set foot on foreign land at age 5, when his family went to the United Kingdom and France, and took the Queen Mary battle-cruiser-turned-ocean liner back home.
“[Susan’s] trips, she makes them interesting,” said Mary Beth Oswalt, a social studies and religion teacher who also has Jack in homeroom.
“He’s a great travel companion,” said Susan, who teaches junior high math, and also teaches computers and handles tech for the whole school. “He actually wants to go and see stuff. He’s faster than I am in airports. He’s sharp, observant, pays attention, wants to meet the people. He doesn’t want to stay in the hotel.”
Next up was an Argentina-Antarctica double-whammy when Jack was just a month shy of 8. If he’d been 8, it would have been easier. Susan had to finagle to get him on the ice-breaking ship, which has a policy to cut off passengers younger than 8.
“That was an interesting experience,” Susan said.
They hit Turkey when he was, in fact, 8. Bye bye, Asia.
Australia got crossed off when he was 11, leaving just Africa.
Oswalt got an email a couple of weeks ago alerting her of Jack’s advancing to the finals. His mom was quickly fetched from the computer lab.
“His classmates were so, so excited for him,” Susan said.
She caught the travel bug while her husband, Alan, worked for General Motors in Japan, long before Jack was born. Alan would work, she’d travel the country.
“It’s a truly beautiful country,” she said.
Should Jack prevail as state champion, he’d get $100, a fourth edition of National Geographic Concise Atlas of the World, and a trip to Washington, D.C., where he’d represent the Land of Lincoln in the national bee May 14 through 17.
The national champ gets a $50,000 college scholarship, a lifetime society membership and an all-expenses-paid expedition of the Galapagos Islands.
Jack isn’t quite sure what he wants to be when he grows up. Not even sure what he’ll study in college. He’s got time. A huge Cubs fan, he’s a realistic young man. He doesn’t plan to play third base for the World Series champs.
“I think Kris Bryant has that covered.”