WALLA WALLA -- "Thanks" was the word of the night Wednesday as local leaders paid homage to the volunteers who have left their mark on the community.
Men and women whose behind-the-scenes service has touched the lives of children, adults, the homeless, the hungry, the unemployed and those in the community who aren't necessarily down on their luck but just need an extra pair of hands were honored for their service during a roughly two-hour ceremony at the Marcus Whitman Hotel & Conference Center.
Nearly 300 people packed the hotel's ballroom for the Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce's 129th annual Awards Banquet. With a theme of "Winter Reflections," the sponsored tables were bedecked in frosty whites, blues and silvers with twinkle lights and sparkles for an event where the work of volunteers was the brightest part of all.
"You're going to hear 'thank you' a lot tonight," Chamber President and Chief Executive Officer David Woolson told the crowd. "There are so many who have given so much to the community."
Woolson kicked off the ceremony with awards to two Chamber volunteers who have devoted their time over the last year to events from the Ambassador Program to the Balloon Stampede. Shannon Bergevin and Shontina Gianotti Coers were presented with their own Spirit of Excellence Award. Typically given to one person, the format changed to honor two this year because the work of both was so integral to the Chamber's events. The award is intended to recognize leadership and devoted service to the Chamber and its membership.
The first two awards were followed by a rousing live auction led by Doug Macon of Macon Bros. Auctioneers before the night's final award recipients were honored.
Receiving the Chambers's Award of Merit were a man and a woman who have given of themselves for more than 15 years to help make the community a better place.
A shocked Jill Zagelow was presented her award by previous recipient Linda Hardy, who described Zagelow as having "helped virtually every inch of the Walla Walla Valley."
Hardy said Zagelow has been a "fundraising guru" who has volunteered for Camp Fire, Children's Home Society and the Walla Walla Housing Authority, among many others. Zagelow helped "jump start" Shakespeare Walla Walla, Hardy explained, and has served on the Kirkman House Museum board and in roles for Valley Residential Services and the SOS Clinic.
"I'm humbled," Zagelow said as she accepted the award. "I never wanted accolades. I'm helping my friends.
The Rev. Ernie Campbell, the award's other recipient, was slightly bamboozled into attending the event. Campbell delivered the invocation before the dinner service but was also there for another reason. Presenter Lawson Knight introduced him as an honoree in a speech that heralded Campbell's service in Rotary, United Way, Blue Mountain Community Service and numerous outdoor adventures with youths and adults.
"I said the invocation last year, and it didn't seem right to me that I should be asked to say the invocation this year. But it seemed like an emergency," Campbell quipped as he accepted the award.
"You all know this happens to be a great place to live," he said thanking the audience.
Award recipients were each applauded with a standing ovation throughout the night. The banquet began with a 5:30 p.m. cocktail hour that included tequila tasting and professional photos from photographer Keith Crain.
The final awards of the evening came from presenters from the area's three colleges.
Dr. Marleen Ramsey, vice president of instruction at Walla Walla Community College, stood in for President Steve VanAusdle to honor Julie Jones with the school's Community Service Award. A longtime instructor, choir leader and performer, Jones has led the church choir at St. Patrick's Catholic Church for more than 25 years, works with students at the community college and supports performing arts at Walla Walla High School where she is known as "Drama Mama," Ramsey said.
"Everything she does is remarkable," she said. "But it's always done with two distinct characteristics: always with elegance and always with grace."
In her acceptance, Jones said she's merely doing what she has always loved. "It doesn't seem fair to get an award when you get to play all the time," she said.
Walla Walla University professor and Dean of the School of Social Work Pamela Cress became part of a distinct duo when she was presented her award by Ken Rogers, vice president of Student Life and Mission. She and her husband, John Cress, now have matching awards from the university for their community service.
Rogers said Cress has influenced the community beyond the campus footprint. She has served on the United Way board, Walla Walla Housing Authority, Rotary, Blue Mountain Credit Union board and for numerous organizations designed to assist the unemployed, elderly and those battling substance abuse.
"Sometimes on campus we have wondered where she was," Rogers jibed. "Now we know."
Cress said she was humbled to receive the award. "I take in more than I give out every day and that's in love, friendship and joy," she said.
The evening's final awards went to two recipients on behalf of Whitman College. As with the Chamber, Whitman veered from its tradition with the Pete & Hedda Reid Award and opted to present two awards instead of two. President George Bridges said both were so deserving that one simply could not be chosen.
The first recipient, Patrick Henry, taught at Whitman nearly 30 years, Bridges explained. A community contributor, volunteer and scholar, he was the Cushing Eells professor of philosophy and literature before his retirement. He had also been a professor of foreign languages and literature there. Henry was among Whitman's first volunteers at Helpline in the 1980s and has been active with Friends of Children of Walla Walla, among other organizations. His award was given in memory of Ted Stein, a friend and fellow professor emeritus at Whitman. Stein's wife, Judith, traveled from New York to witness the presentation.
The final award of the evening went to Tana Park, a 13-year Whitman employee who Bridges described as "a selfless volunteer." She has given her time to numerous school events, led the fundraising for hundreds of thousands of dollars for Walla Walla Catholic School, served as PTA president for Green Park and on the YMCA board, numerous others, Bridges said. Park's award was presented in memory of Jack Riehl, former Whitman alumni director.