SEBRING - Every award winner was applauded, but the only standing ovation at Thursday night's Sebring Chamber of Commerce banquet was for Robert Saffold.
"Last year," said incoming 2014 chair Jane Hancock, "we established the George Hensley Citizen of the Year Award. This award was given to George Hensley to recognize how selflessly and consistently he does good things in our community."
Sebring's mayor is out of town, or he would have presented the award to Saffold. Hensley wrote a long letter instead.
Hancock passed the microphone to the mayor's son-in-law, Craig Johnson, who read Hensley's praise for Saffold, a former teacher who became the premier civic leader of the Washington Heights neighborhood.
Saffold raises money every year so children can get a backpack full of school supplies, organizes golf tournaments, leads the Florida Sportsmen Association, and escorts children to a football game every year.
As Johnson concluded, all 280 audience members stood and applauded as Saffold walked from a far-corner table to the podium at Island View Lakefront Restaurant in Sun N' Lake. There, he was hugged by Hancock.
The Large Business of the Year was Sebring International Raceway, which on race days is Highlands County's largest business, attracting cars, fans, drivers and journalists from around the world. Hotels, motels and even private homes are filled as far away as Bowling Green and Okeechobee. The award was accepted by Marketing Director Kristie Sottile.
The Small Business of the Year was Boom Boom Guns & Ammo, which emcee Don Elwell ironically joked was an interesting move in a depressed economy. The co-owners are Geri Canale and Steve Marabel.
The Thelma Pyle Volunteer of the Year was Gloria Schwartz. "I thought you were on the payroll, you were out there so much," Hancock said.
Nan Immel of Comfort Keepers was named Ambassador of the Year, and Rick Mercure of All Communications Services, won the President's Award, presented by outgoing president Steve Nyhan.
Receiving ambassador awards were Brian Krpata, Christian Broton, Tricia Davis, Barbara Cook, Beckie Halaska, Brenda Bachman, Colleen Dukes, Debra Snyder, Hilda Hernandez, Janet Johns, Julia Mercer, Ken Willis, Lesley Allison, Terry Elwood, Marcia Davis, Moddie Desselle, Nan Immel, Rob Bullock, Susan McCool, Victor Bryie, and Yessenia Inizarry.
In a side note, Hancock closed the banquet by saying that the executive board is interviewing a second round of candidates and hopes to fill the president's position next week. Nyhan resigned to take a less stressful job. He is now selling Aflac Insurance.
This was a record crowd at a Greater Sebring Chamber banquet, Hancock said. She was told that 250 was the maximum the restaurant could serve. "So we went out and sold 280 reservations."
Chet Brojek and Mike McLeod retired from the board of directors and were congratulated by Reed, who received his own kudos from Hancock. "Rob, you're going to be a hard act to follow."
Elwell is the chairman elect. Dusty Johnson is the new first vice chairman, and Zbigniew Nawrocki is the second vice chair.
The chamber is officially 100 years old this year, Reed said. H. Orvel Sebring, son of the town founder, organized the Sebring Board of Trade, which merged two years later with Sebring Chamber of Commerce and occupied a little building in 1916, which has been refurbished and recently reopened.
The chamber cut in half its basic membership price. "I am also excited to announce that we've grown to almost 600 members, representing every type of business and organization in Highlands County," Reed said.