And it’s not every year that the Vandalia Chamber of Commerce presents Abe Awards to a married couple and an individual born outside of the United States.
So it truly was a unique and special night last month at the Vandalia Moose Lodge, as the Chamber celebrated its 100th year of existence.
Walt and Paula Barenfanger were honored with Abe Awards for outstanding community service along with Wietse Schaafsma, a native of the Netherlands who is believed to be the first foreign-born recipient of the honor.
Each Barenfanger was aware prior to the banquet that their significant other was to receive an Abe Award, but neither knew that they were going to receive the honor themselves. They are the first married couple to receive Abe Award honors in the same year.
Chamber Vice President Todd Stapleton lauded Walt for his donations to countless groups throughout the community, as well as his work to strengthen the community’s economy, particularly his efforts to keep Graham Packaging in Vandalia prior to the company closing its plant.
Walt was also active in trying to find a company to by the vacated facility, and an Ohio-based real estate development company recently purchased the building and intends to market it to a business that will bring much-needed jobs to the area.
Originally from Arkansas, Walt moved to Vandalia at a young age and graduated from VCHS in 1971. He went on to graduate from the University of Illinois with a master’s degree in architecture. A licensed architect, Barenfanger is co-creator and owner of the Kaskaskia Dragon — the 35-foot metal monster near he and his wife’s hardware store, Kaskaskia Supply — whose flame-spewing capabilities has brought visitors and attention to Vandalia, most recently in a feature story by WCIA-TV, Champaign.
“Really, there’s a lot more people in the community that do a lot of things,” Barenfanger said while accepting his award. “… I’m flattered, but it’s the community itself that gets the Abe Award.”
Chamber Secretary John Ashdown lauded Paula Barenfanger’s work with various Chamber committees.
“Paula is always willing to serve and do things that will advance Vandalia,” Ashdown said. “Anybody who has served on a committee with her would want to again. She always finishes everything she says she will do with a smile.”
The Barenfangers have been married nearly 14 years. They have four children and four grandchildren.
Outgoing Chamber President and Fayette County Hosptial CEO Greg Starnes quoted Abraham Lincoln prior to introducing Schaafsma: “And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count, it’s the life in your years,” Starnes said.
It takes quite an individual to inspire use of a Lincoln quote, but Starnes went on to explain exactly why the quote suits Schaafsma perfectly.
“He happens to be one of the nicest, most genuine people that I have met,” Starnes said.
Starnes met Schaafsma shortly after moving to Vandalia and was immediately impressed with his general attitude toward life.
“His name revealed that he was probably not from here originally,” Starnes said. “He was from far away, and he seemed to have this real appreciation for life in America.
“This man doesn’t look for what’s wrong with life here, he embraces it. Are most people from his country like him? I have no idea. He just seems to be one of those unique individuals that cares about and appreciates other people so much that he spends a lot of time doing whatever he can to help them.”
Starnes highlighted Schaafsma’s various community service endeavors, most notably his work as President of Operation Outing, a transportation service that helps people who can’t drive get to various events.
Schaafsma is also Treasurer of the Friends and Families Foundation of Fayette County Hospital and Long Term Care, and is involved with the Salvation Army United Fund and Meals on Wheels.
“People wonder, ‘How do people get their meals?’ (It’s) from people like this guy right here,” Starnes said. “He selflessly serves these organizations with zeal and passion, with active participation in and promotion of fundraising events.”
Schaafsma accepted his Abe with the dignified nature Starnes speaks of — and a bit of humor, too.
“I’m most impressed with the fact that my name is spelled correctly,” Schaafsma said of the trophy inscription. “That’s pretty rare.”
Starnes passed the torch to new Chamber president Brock Brannon prior to the presentation of the Abe Awards, and the new Chamber leader talked about his passion for Vandalia.
“I was born, grew up and currently live in the Vandalia area,” said the1998 VCHS graduate before sharing a humorous tale about his birth at Fayette County Hospital.
“My roots run deep in Vandalia and this is where my heart is,” Brannon said.
A 2002 Millikin graduate, Brannon has worked as a dual employee at First National Bank and Investment Centers of America as a financial advisor since 2006. He served as Chamber Vice President in 2013. His mother served as Chamber secretary in the mid 1990s.
“It was during that time that I started seeing how important a Chamber can be to a community,” Brannon said.
Brannon noted that there are two main groups of businesses in Vandalia —those that benefit from people coming from out of town (hotels, restaurants, gas stations, ect.) and those that depend almost exclusively on local citizens and community growth for their success (banks, accountants, attorneys, real estate).
“The Chamber is trying to find ways to support both business types,” Brannon said.
Vandalia Mayor Ricky Gottman whole-heartedly endorsed Brannon, both for Brannon’s current office and, possibly, the mayor’s office in the future.
“The guidance that I see from him for the Chamber in 2014 I think is great,” Gottman said. “You heard tonight how his heart is into it. When I decide to hang up the reigns as the mayor of the city of Vandalia, I would like to see someone like Brock serve as mayor.”
Brannon presented Starnes with the President’s Award for Outstanding Community Service, and Gottman presented the outgoing Chamber president with a plaque on behalf of the elected officials and City of Vandalia featuring Abraham Lincoln.
“It was a role that I really enjoyed, due to the consistent commitment and enthusiasm demonstrated by (Chamber Executive Director) Shannon Craycroft and the members of our board of directors,” Starnes said. “These are people that truly care about our Chamber and our community.
“I know that Brock is excited to get 2014 started as our new president, and I believe he will serve our organization well.”
All past Chamber presidents and Abe winners in attendance were also recognized.
Past Abe winners in attendance were: Todd McKellar, Dale Burnham, Jim Staff, Ernie Chappell, Dale Timmermann, Mayor Rich Walker, Joyce Staff, Steve Stombaugh, Kevin Childers, Jean Stombaugh, Mary Truitt, Steve Henna, Sandy Michel, Randy Edwards, Mayor Ricky Gottman, Catherine Bowen, Saundra Helm, Tom McCarty, Dave Bell, Doug Knebel, Joyce Mueller, John Ashdown and Abe Clymer.
State Representative John Cavelletto and Sen. Kyle McCarter were also in attendance, and entertainment was provided by a group of actors from the Champaign/Urbana Theater Company, which performed a murder mystery investigation dinner theater program.
Dr. Kevin Childers also provided entertainment as the Master of Ceremonies, although he took a little good-natured ribbing as well.
“As you know tonight, we are celebrating 100 years of the Vandalia Chamber of Commerce,” Stapleton said. “Also celebrating 100 years are most of Kevin Childers’ jokes.”
VCHS members of the National Honor Society served food prepared by the Copper Penny.