Unsung heroes praised at chamber ceremony

Posted: Tuesday, January 29, 2002

Dressing up in January in Kenai usually means slipping into snow pants, gloves and boots. On Saturday night, however, locals were donning gowns and ties instead of Carhartts and Sorels as the Kenai Senior Citizens Center played host to the 25th annual Kenai Chamber of Commerce ceremony.

The theme of this year's gala event was "A Salute to Our Unsung Hometown Heroes." Awards were presented to Kenai Peninsula residents who have enhanced the community through various acts of civic service. Awards were given by the chamber in several categories, including community service, organization, volunteer, the President's Award, Pioneer Award and Log Cabin Award.

The awards ceremony got under way at 7:30 p.m. following a fireworks display at the Kenai softball fields, courtesy of XTO Energy and Forest Oil.

Community members honored included Marion Nelson, who received the chamber's Volunteer of the Year award to a standing ovation. Peak Oilfield Services received the Organization of the Year award and was praised for donating in excess of $200,000 to local charities and organizations, as well as employing more than 900 Alaska residents.

Although unable to attend the event, longtime Kenai residents John and Margaret Steinbeck were honored with the Pioneer Award. Steinbeck is a former Kenai mayor, and this led emcee Merrill Sikorski to joke about Steinbeck once owning a grocery store in Soldotna.

"Imagine, the mayor of Kenai owning a grocery store in Soldotna," said Sikorski before adding, "well, annexation has been discussed," much to the amusement of the predominately Kenai crowd.

In addition to the chamber's more traditional awards, firefighters and police officers presented awards for outstanding acts of heroism.

It took some gentle prodding by Sikorski to get the humble firefighters to the podium.

"Isn't it amazing how sometimes a microphone can be more scary than a burning building?" he asked.

Singled out for special recognition was a Kenai Fire Department EMS team who rescued a hypothermic man last November from an auto accident in downtown Kenai. For their bravery, Capt. William Furlong, firefighters Jason Diorec, Mark Anderson and John Harris were given the EMS Call of the Year Award.

Firefighter of the Year was awarded to Tony Prior for leadership, dedication and pride in his job and the community.

The Fire Call of the Year included members of both the fire and police departments. Engineer Eric Wilcox, firefighter Greg Coon and Furlong responded to a fire at the Kaknu Apartments. Three police officers also were recognized for their efforts in helping nine residents escape through the windows. Officers recognized were Randy Kornfield, Neil Paskewitz and Kelly George.

The final award of the evening was given to another former Kenai mayor, Vince O'Reilly, who was honored with the chamber's Log Cabin Award.

Sikorski praised O'Reilly as someone who took a trip to Alaska in 1969 and fell in love with the area so much he had to pack up his wife and six kids and leave his native New York.

O'Reilly was noted for his love of the community despite the reservations of most people back in the Big Apple.

"Before we left, a nun passed me a note that said he was mentally ill," said O'Reilly's daughter Margaret Gilman of Kenai. Although O'Reilly was unable to attend, Gilman and her brother Sean accepted the award on his behalf.

Attendees were entertained by a variety of acts. In addition to Sikorski's comic quips, the Jabila'ina Dance Group of Kenai performed traditional Native Alaska songs and dances.

Soldotna resident Allen Auxier performed his rendition of the Robert Service poem "The Cremation of Sam McGee." And a slide show highlighting business and community contributions brought smiles to the faces of many who were touched by the images of community members engaging in various civic endeavors.

The final event of the busy evening included the introduction of the chamber's 2001 and 2002 board of directors and a message from incoming chamber president Cherie Brewer, who will replace Robert Peterkin as chamber president.

Complete list of awards

Unsung heroes: Debbie Sonberg and Dorothy Tunseth

Volunteer: Marion Nelson

Organization: Peak Oilfield Services

Community Service: Emily DeForest

President's Choice: Jim Butler

Pioneer: John and Margaret Steinbeck

Log Cabin: Vince O'Reilley

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