Chamber awards feature rare double for volunteers

The Chamber of Commerce held its 130th annual awards banquet Wednesday night.

Table decorations stand out Wednesday evening during the 130th annual Chamber of Commerce awards banquet.

Table decorations stand out Wednesday evening during the 130th annual Chamber of Commerce awards banquet. Photo by Sean G. Parsons.

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WALLA WALLA -- It was only appropriate on a night designed to celebrate "Magical Moments" in volunteerism that guests at the 130th annual Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce Award Banquet would be seeing double. At least when it came to honoring male recipients of the Award of Merit.

For the first time since 1968, two honorees were selected for the male Award of Merit recognition, the Chamber's highest award for volunteerism.

Blue Mountain Action Council Chief Executive Officer Steve Moss and former longtime regional director of the Children's Home Society of Washington Richard Pankl were dual winners alongside female recipient Sue Gillespie -- all of whom were celebrated in a two-hour ceremony that featured a silent and live auction and dinner in a bedazzling setting at the Marcus Whitman Hotel & Conference Center.

The annual event is a massive gathering to revel in the good deeds of friends and neighbors who give their time and talents to making the community a better place.

This year's theme, Magical Moments, was reflected in the decorations and centerpieces at more than two dozen tables individually sponsored by local businesses, as well as in a historic photographs of milestones in the community shone throughout the event by emcee David Woolson, president and chief executive officer of the Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce.

Magical moments, he explained, occur all around us and have shaped the community -- from the creation of the Chamber office and three local colleges/university to the unpaid hours given by volunteers who do everything from behind-the-scenes work at events to advocate for the most vulnerable residents of the Valley.

Magical moments were also created during the event -- which served as a fundraiser and food drive for local pantries, and also raised well over $11,000 for the Chamber during the live auction portion alone.

The award portion kicked off as Woolson presented the Chamber's own Spirit of Excellence Award to its longtime Walla Walla Balloon Stampede balloonmeister Jerry Cummins. The Walla Walla City Council member, a retired educator who also spent more than 23 years in the U.S. Navy, most recently has served in a leadership role for the Blue Mountain Chapter of the American Red Cross. Woolson described him as "one of the hardest working retired guys I've ever known."

Gillespie was presented with her Award of Merit by Linda Hardy, who described the honoree as a "stalwart advocate for displaced women and children" in a speech that metaphorically compared Gillespie to the "Little Engine That Could." Gillespie, she said, has been intrinsically involved in too many nonprofit organizations to list but has helped establish scholarships at Whitman College and Walla Walla Community College, helped jump start Shakespeare Walla Walla and served on boards for the Walla Walla Symphony and Chamber Music Festival, among so many others.

A die-hard Washington State University fan, Gillespie marveled at the award: "And I though the best thing this week was the Cougs winning the Apple Cup," she told the packed crowd.

Meagan Anderson-Pira presented the Award of Merit to the Moss and Pankl, two men whose service and interests run parallel -- service on behalf of youth and those in need, frequent travelers, even highly involved members of service clubs.

Three other awards were presented throughout the evening by representatives of the community's three higher education institutions.

The first, from Walla Walla Community College, was presented by Doug Bayne, the school's director of Resource Development. Bayne presented the community college's Community Service Award posthumously to the late Greg Farrens, a 35-year employee who created the irrigation technology program and died last October, a month before he was to be recognized by the National Irrigation Foundation as the first ever recipient of its "Excellence in Education Award." He was a huge supporter of youth sports, local sports, the wine industry and much more, leaving a "lasting legacy of service to the community," Bayne said. The award was presented to Farrens' wife, Kathie.

Walla Walla University's Community Service Award, presented by Steve Rose, went to professor of education Tamara Randolph, whose service is entrenched in everything from the resurrection of the Children's Museum and quilting for families in need to her passion working with students at the Farm Labor Homes. In a passionate and energetic thank-you speech, Randolph said she is driven by her love of the community, education and people, especially the work at the Farm Labor Homes. "Once I found them -- or they found me -- I've never been the same," she said.

Whitman College President George Bridges presented the school's Pete & Hedda Reid Award in honor of the late George Ball to an employee whom he described as a "consummate volunteer." Brian Dohe, Exchange Club president and the college's director of Annual Giving, has served more than 20 years at Whitman where he has been at the forefront of numerous projects and causes. Dohe thanked his wife and son for "sharing" him with the community. "It is, after all, for one another that we are here," he said.

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