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May 24, 2023

A heartfelt ode to Kwok Café earns Darnell Johnson ’25 the 2023 Hugh Camp Cup


On April 28, as Darnell Johnson ’25 left the Memorial Hall stage after delivering the final speech of the 2023 Hugh Camp Cup competition, he felt confident that it had gone well. Johnson’s speech — an impassioned, eight-minute ode to the joys of the Friedman Community Center’s Kwok Café, delivered with the drama and flair of a seasoned theater performer — had been met with a standing ovation by the St. Paul’s School student body. Following six other finalist speeches that ranged from the deeply serious to the deeply personal, Johnson’s lighthearted take on a staple of SPS life could have fallen flat just as easily as it had brought the student body to its feet.

Darnell Johnson '25 delivering speech

I couldn’t go up there and give a speech about a really serious topic because that’s just not my style. I thought all the other speeches were good, and really fit the people who were giving them. But I knew if I was going to do my best, it had to be something a little unconventional, and I wanted it to be something everybody in the audience would understand.”

Darnell Johnson ’25

Johnson’s instincts served him well; during Chapel on May 5, he was announced as the winner of the Hugh Camp Cup. Lulu Mangriotis ’25 earned runner-up honors.

For Humanities Teacher Harrison Soebroto, who has overseen the Hugh Camp Cup competition since 2019, the contrast between those two speeches — both in subject matter and oratory style — is part of what makes the annual event so compelling. Established in 1926 in memory of Hugh Nesbitt Camp III of the Form of 1918, the competition was originally open only to Sixth Formers. Today, it’s popular across the forms, particularly among the Third, Fourth and Fifth Formers who are all required to give speeches at the start of their Spring Term Humanities classes.

“We posted the sign-up for tryouts at 8 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, and both sessions were completely full very shortly thereafter,” Soebroto says. Close to 40 students auditioned, delivering their speeches to a panel of five judges who decided on the seven finalists. Finalists learned of their selection on Monday, April 24; they had until Friday to practice and fine-tune their speeches, delivered to the entire SPS community in the last hour before the start of Mid-spring Recess. As in past years, the winners were selected by popular vote, with everyone in attendance at the finals eligible to cast a ballot.

Soebroto notes that many students come to St. Paul’s with previous experience in speech-giving and public speaking and others are drawn to the prestige of the competition, which he says is held in high regard by students. “This year, we also were fortunate to be able to have Ms. McKinney, our director of theater, work with the finalists on the second night of rehearsals to help them think about their delivery, things like gesture and tone,” he adds. In an era of social media personas and curated images, he says, “It’s a powerful experience for these students — the genuine visibility, the opportunity to stand up and share what you believe with your peers.”

Darnell with Vishal and Pooja from Kwok Café

Johnson stopped by Kwok Café to share his victory with cafe employees Vishal and Pooja.

Darnell Johnson in Putnam County Spelling Bee

Johnson in the role of the spelling bee judge during the School production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”

Johnson, who had two roles in the School’s spring musical, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” says the competition reinforced his passion for performing, and he’s already thinking ahead to next year’s Hugh Camp Cup. He’s also enjoying a small moment of celebrity on the School grounds, regularly stopped on the paths or in the Upper by students from all forms who want to let him know how much they liked his speech.