MILTON-FREEWATER -- "Our Little Corner of Paradise" was underlined on every table at the Milton-Freewater Community Building on Thursday evening.
The theme for the 64th annual Milton-Freewater Area Chamber of Commerce awards banquet seemed embodied by tables sporting fountains of foliage, intricate bird cages and beer-bottle palm trees. Before the evening would end, this community would lift up some of its finest citizens, including Man of the Year George Gillette and Woman of the Year Mary Jean Arnzen.
In the building's packed main room, diners tucked into prime rib, seafood salad and other goodies worthy of paradise while waiting to hear who among them would be celebrated this evening.
They didn't wait long. Past Chamber President Rob Johnson began the ceremony with the President's Award, which went to Larry and Jennifer Anderson for their "incredible work at every chamber event." The couple are the first to arrive and the last to leave, only doing so after making notes of every detail and planning for the next one, Johnson told the crowd.
Mcloughlin High School teacher Anna Geyer took the podium next to sing the praises of the 2011 Youth of the Year. She had watched Micaela Epifanio, the daughter of Roberto and Cindy Epifanio, grow and blossom in her high school years, the teacher noted. Citing a long list of accomplishments in the Mac-Hi senior's life, Geyer included an armful of Epifanio's leadership skills and community activities.
Overcome, the young woman broke down. "I'm just very surprised. I don't know what else to say. Thank you very much."
Milton-Freewater attorney Christine Davis Wallace did an end run while announcing the 2011 Golden Pioneers award. Calling the winners' four adult children to the front of the room without a hint of what was to come, she went on to describe the volunteerism and community involvement of Sam and Rosella Humbert, longtime area residents.
The Humberts began a refuse and recycling business decades ago to answer community need for that service, while running a number of other businesses. The family is reliably quick to step forward whenever help is needed, Wallace said.
The smiling couple seemed hesitant to approach the lectern. "I'm a behind-the-scenes man," Sam joked.
The winner of the Chamber's Junior Citizen of the Year is so involved in helping kids that he was missing in action at a regional high school wrestling tournament, explained presenter Sharee LaRue-Wright.
Lance Bullock, an orchardist and beef rancher, does much for kids while never tooting his own horn, LaRue-Wright expounded. Not only in efforts such as preparing and improving all the area sports fields before each season -- alone -- but in helping kids in a more direct way.
Children who need financial assistance to pay for a sport uniform or a meal while the team is on the road have a friend in Bullock, she said. "And he never asks anything in return."
Wherever children need help is where Bullock is volunteering, even when his own children don't participate in a particular event, LaRue-Wright added.
The award was accepting by the honoree's brother, Loren "LG" Bullock.
It was because of her own teachers that Ferndale Elementary School teacher Karen Hendricks grew up to do creative and original things with her students, she noted as presenter for Educator of the Year.
This year's winner "touches many lives with his tireless efforts," she said, then read aloud nominating letter written by choir teacher George White.
Twenty two years ago, music teacher Mike Agidius took a lackluster high school band program and created proficient bands able to win competitions within seven years, White wrote, chronicling the multitude ways Agidius supports his students.
The middle-, high-school and university band teacher also promotes music in the community at every opportunity, White said in his letter read aloud by Hendricks.
"In conclusion, I feel this has long been coming for Mike. I have the utmost respect for everything he does."
In accepting his award, Agidius laughed with delight. "I don't know if I can live up to all that George wrote."
Todd Davis is a third generation farmer, said Agri-Business Award of the Year presenter Clive Kaiser. It's Davis' attention to detail that bookmarks him as excellent in all that Davis undertakes, said Kaiser, Umatilla County extension agent.
Davis, who was on a business trip Thursday, farms the family apple orchard that was established in about 1950 and is president of the Blue Mountain Horticulture Society, yet manages to stay out of the limelight, Kaiser told the audience.
The award was accepted on behalf of their son by Melody and Alan Davis. As the room's buzz increased, presenter Debbie Lee took the opportunity to give the crowd an in-depth look at all the Woman of the Year does. Mary Jean Arnzen seems the perfect fit to grow and flourish within small-town life, Lee said.
Arnzen, who came to Milton-Freewater with contractor and orchardist husband Don more than 40 years ago, raised her five children here and nurtured hundreds more in her long-time work as a secretary at Central Middle School. As well, Arnzen volunteers at her church, at local organizations and in the community at large, Lee said, launching into a list of accomplishments that lasted minutes.
"She is respected by many, her reach is far and wide, she has a compassionate heart and lends a helping hand to many."
Approaching the front of the room, Arnzen spied several family members who had remained out of her sight during the dinner and were now standing and applauding.
"I can't imagine who (Lee) was describing because it doesn't sound like me," she said with a wide smile. "I love this town. You've all been so good to us, not only with the finances to raise our family but the opportunity to be involved."
Having not yet recovered from being chosen as Man of the Year for 2010, presenter Mike Humbert told folks it was his honor to pass the award to this year's recipient, "a very deserving and well-respected gentleman for his service and unfaltering dedication to this community."
George Gillette, manager of the city's golf course, has volunteered in the community since his high school days and has only gathered momentum in those endeavors, Humbert said. Humbert extolled Gillette as the "consummate team player and ambassador for our city, a wonderful family man and someone everyone can call friend."
If he's being honest, Gillette responded to the honor, "it's humbling and hard to believe the committee didn't have more people to choose from."
In seriousness, however, he lives and serves in Milton-Freewater, "because I believe in it. I encourage others to be involved and give back."
Sheila Hagar can be reached at email@example.com or 526-8322.