Four months ago, Ken Hartman told his wife he was quitting his job as a vice president at Rowan University.
He said he had more important things to do.
Hartman set out to create America Salutes, a virtual tribute to the Class of 2020 high school seniors who plan to enlist in the military immediately after graduation.
“I felt like with the state our country is in, we needed something like this more than ever,” said Hartman, an internationally known educational consultant who recently was president of Drexel University Online.
Set to stream over social media on July 4, the one-hour production will include performances by recording artists such as Lee Greenwood, Prince Royce, and Natti Natasha as well as video tributes from second lady Karen Pence, actor Michael Imperioli of “Sopranos” fame, Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo, and shock-rock pioneer Alice Cooper, among others.
“We’re getting tributes from as far away as outer space,” Hartman said. “The response has been overwhelming.”
The virtual tribute will air multiple times in July and August. Following a July 28 airing, Hartman has arranged for a live, national, virtual career fair for veterans.
“So many of our younger veterans are among the millions of unemployed,” Hartman said. “This was an opportunity to combine the virtual tribute with information and resources for veterans.”
Hartman, himself a military veteran, is the founder of Our Community Salutes, a national, nonprofit organization he created in 2009 to help communities recognize, honor, and support high school seniors who plan to enlist in the Armed Services after graduation.
“At the time, I was serving on the Cherry Hill school board,” said Hartman. “We were doing nothing to recognize these kids [who were planning to enroll in the military after graduation].”
So he organized a dinner and ceremony in their honor. Soon afterward, he said, he was contacted by a woman in Pittsburgh who hoped to do the same thing in Western Pennsylvania.
“We created Our Community Salutes Pittsburgh, and it just grew organically from there,” Hartman said. “We now have groups as far away as Hawaii and Puerto Rico.”
Each year, the Philadelphia chapter of Our Community Salutes has held a recognition ceremony for the graduates, traditionally at the Union League in Center City. There have also been annual events in Bucks, Montgomery, Chester, Burlington, and Gloucester Counties.
But with restrictions on large gatherings due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Hartman looked for another way to honor the class of 2020 seniors. The result is the July 4 virtual America Salutes recognition ceremony.
“One of the lessons learned from the military is, ‘It’s all about the mission,’” Hartman said. “It would have been easy to say, ‘Well, we’ll start up again next year.’ But the Class of 2020 is special. It’s the first class where all the students were born after 9/11.”
Hartman said he received immediate buy-in from military officials in support of the virtual extravaganza. Comcast, which is serving as a sponsor, helped connect him with celebrities who will make cameos during the tribute.
As word spread, Hartman said, he heard from NASCAR drivers, musicians, actors, military veterans, and Pence, a Blue Star mother with a son in the Marines.
“It’s really been humbling,” Hartman said.
He is working with Philadelphia-based Helm Creative Studios to produce the show.
“The [virtual salute] is near and dear to my heart,” said Helm president Ashlee Hollis. “My family has a military-service history, and I understand firsthand the dedication and sacrifice that’s required to ensure the freedoms that I often take for granted.”
Hartman said around 150,000 graduating high school seniors typically enroll in the military immediately after graduation, less than 1% of the class.
He added: “These are kids who are putting their country in front of themselves.”