Mitchell Hults shook his head and smiled as a crowd of about 80 people waited for him to speak about an experience that changed his life. Hults, who has been dubbed a hero for his part in helping to rescue two kidnapped Missouri boys in January, received a standing ovation at the meeting of the East Missouri District of the Optimists International in Columbia on Saturday morning.
As part of a regular meeting for the Optimists, Hults was honored for his actions and presented with several gifts, including a plaque and a $1,500 check. The organization has volunteers that work to help charitable causes that benefit children.
After his appearance, several members said Hults energized and inspired the audience.
“It’s an example of, start to finish, the good that you are doing for your community,” said Richard McKernan, lieutenant governor of the district’s second zone, while addressing the organization.
During his speech and a question-and-answer session, Hults did not dwell on his role in foiling the kidnappings. He often turned the conversation to his new truck, given to him by the Chrysler Group, and his upcoming 16th birthday party.
“I didn’t think I was ever gonna be a hero,” Hults said.
Hults noticed a strange white pickup truck after he got off the bus on Jan. 8 and gave a detailed description to police when his friend, Ben Ownby, was reported missing. Authorities tracked the truck to an apartment in St. Louis occupied by Michael Devlin, who is accused of kidnapping Ownby and having kidnapped another teen, Shawn Hornbeck, in 2002.
Hults said that after giving the description of the truck, he had a hard time convincing authorities to believe him. He was even required to take a polygraph test.
“I had to do what I had to do,” he said. “I didn’t think they would believe me.”
Many of the Optimists said Hults is a good example of an average young person who was able to make a positive contribution to his community.
“Everybody has the potential to make a difference,” McKernan said. “Most people don’t because of the roadblock in their head that says ‘I can’t.’”
Since January, Hults has traveled across the state, speaking to groups and receiving gifts. Along with his new truck, he was also given front-row seats to a “Larry the Cable Guy” comedy show and a $5,000 scholarship from the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
But Michael and Sherry Hults, who accompanied their son Saturday, said the accolades and attention have not changed him.
“He’s still the same old Mitch,” Michael Hults said.
Mitchell Hults said most kids his age probably wouldn’t have had the awareness to report the truck and all of its details to the police, but his parents were quick to note that trucks are one of his passions.
Loretta Kelly, lieutenant governor of the district’s tenth zone, was one of many who lauded Hults for setting an example for others through his deeds.
“I’ve got 10 grandchildren and he’s become a role model for them, just to be aware of your surroundings,” she said.