Madison Communications was named Coal Country Chamber of Commerce Business of the Year for 2018 at the conclusion of the CCCC’s annual banquet Saturday night at JoDanni’s Amore restaurant. The event, celebrating the Chamber’s 20th anniversary, also featured the presentation of several awards recognizing Chamber volunteers and supporters, and a brief address by Avery Bourne, Illinois State Representative for the 95th District. About 150 owners and representatives of local businesses attended the event.
“I greatly appreciate this award,” said Madison Chief Financial Officer Mary Westerhold, who accepted the Business of the Year plaque on behalf of Madison Communications and the Schwartz family. She said her father, Robert “Bob” Schwartz, was unable to attend the ceremony but she quoted his business advice to his children as wise counsel for all businesses: “Work hard and take care of the customer, and the customer will take care of you.”
In addition to the plaque, Madison Communications also received a night’s stay at the Hampton Inn in Litchfield presented by Miranda Bergmann and Jean Bruner Jachino, representing the hotel.
CCCC Board member Mike Brill presented the award, noting that Madison Communications has been a CCCC member and corporate level sponsor for 14 years.
“In addition to the financial commitment they have made to the Chamber, this company’s employees are very generous with their time,” Brill said. “They send a large crew to work during the summer concert series, as well as providing giveaways. They also support the Fall Festival and assist during the Tour de Coal by providing staff to cover a few rest stops. They also provide items to include in the gift bags to the children who attend Snack with Santa. They consistently show that they are a part of the communities they serve.”
Based in Staunton, Madison Communications began in 1940 as a local telephone exchange carrier called Worden Telephone Co. Robert Schwartz and his wife Sandi purchased the company in 1986. Westerhold and her brothers Leonard Schwartz, Vice President in charge of Plant Operations, and Stephen Schwatz, Vice President in charge of Engineering and Construction, manage the company and its affiliates Madison Telephone and Madison Network Systems. Bob Schwartz’s grandson Drew recently graduated from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville and joined the company as the family enters its fourth generation of family ownership.
The company employees 49 workers.
Since 2010, through its Go Green initiative, Madison Communications has encouraged residents to properly dispose of unwanted electronics and appliances via free e-cycling events held throughout the company’s service area. In addition to supporting the CCCC, the company supports a number of charitable and service organizations such as Benld Adopt-A-Pet, scouting groups, local libraries and school districts. The company also collaborates with local leaders and businesses to support economic development, health care and education initiatives throughout the region. Madison’s annual Teacher of the Year program has recognized 22 local teachers and put more than $11,000 into to local school districts over the past 11 years.
“We have a commitment to bringing communications, especially high-speed internet, to about 19 communities that we serve,” Westerhold told the crowd Saturday night.
In addition to recognizing Madison Communications as Business of the Year, the Chamber recognized Ruth Ann Pomatto, Gillespie, with the Executive Director’s Award for her “dedication and service to the CCCC through volunteerism” since 2000. Gillespie High School student Megan Hatlee received the Chamber’s first Junior Chamber Achievement Award, an annual award presented to a high school student to “commitment and exemplary volunteerism to the CCCC.
CCCC Good Heart awards for “commitment and exemplary service to the CCCC” went to Don Miller, and Mary and Harold Newman. Gail Remer was recognized with a Spirit of CCCC Award for Service and Loyalty in recognition of “using her artistic skills to make the community better.”
Mike Brill presented Pomatto with the Executive Director’s Award, noting that he was “personally impressed with her energy, and commitment to helping others and volunteering.”
Brill said Pomatto has been involved with the CCCC since its inception, working in the concession stand during the Summer Concert Series and averaging more than 100 hours of service each summer.
“To this day, she continues to help out during the summer concerts as well as during the Fall Festival,” he said. “She has also been a big supporter of Illinois Valley and has been on the board since 1997.” For the City of Gillespie, she cares for Simon Pomatto Park near the Civic Center, which is a popular location for wedding, homecoming and prom photos. She has served as a member of the Macoupin County Board for 32 years.
Brandi Odum recognized Hatlee with the Chamber’s first Junior Chamber Achievement Award.
“In recent years we have seen an increase in volunteering from community youth,” Odum said. “With that being said, the Coal Country Chamber of Commerce has decided to establish an annual award.” To be eligible for the award, recipients must be enrolled at Gillespie High School, be active in the community and to have volunteered for at least two years with the Chamber. Odum said Hatlee has been involved with the Fall Festival clean-up, worked the Summer Concert Series both in the concession stand and as a greeter, been involved with the Holiday Sparkle and sold tickets for the Chamber-sponsored Kelly-Miller Circus. She said Hatlee’s mother, Becky, also has been involved with Chamber events, working alongside her daughter.
Nathan Nelson, a CCCC board member and pastor of the Canna Community Church, said Miller stepped up as soon as Nelson approached his congregation about volunteering with the CCCC. “This individual stepped up and has never stopped volunteering,” Nelson said. “He came out and helped with parking at the Summer Concert Series, adding a parking assistant for the first time, which was greatly appreciated. Rain or shine, this individual was there.” Miller also help set up parking fences for the Fall Festival, and stayed for the entire event to assist with parking. During the Holiday Sparkle in December, Miller helped youngsters playing on the climbing walls. “There wasn’t an event this individual missed and he was always there wanting to do more,” Nelson said.
Nelson’s wife Peggy presented the second Good Heart Award to Mary and Harold Newman.
Mary Newman “has a huge heart for our community, families and children,” Nelson said. Newman and her husband Harold “always think ahead and help plan events that meet the needs and desires of others,” she said. “We are thankful our events are always shared by them on Facebook and at their workplaces.”
Nelson said Mary Newman arrives before sunrise for the Fall Festival “and does not leave until the event is over.” Beyond the Chamber, Nelson credited Newman for leading a Summer Reading program, making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for local children, providing craft time for families, and organizing movie nights in the park.
“Thank you for all your hard work,” Nelson said.
Presenting Remer with the Spirit of CCCC Award was Tressa Besserman of the CCCC Board.
“This recipient has used her well-developed artistic skills and her enthusiasm over the past 20 years in noting helping the program for which she works, but also enhancing the Coal Country Chamber of Commerce’s events,” Besserman said. Since the beginning of the Fall Festival, Remer, in her role as an employee at the Illinois Valley Rehabilitation Center, coordinated a display of fall decor created by Rehab Center clients for sale to festival-goers. “It’s hard to tell how many people flock to the Fall Festival hoping to find one of the Illinois Valley’s wooden decorations for their homes and yards.”
When the Chamber’s Snack with Santa moved to the Illinois Valley building on Walnut Street, Remer welcomed the Chamber “with open arms” and painted a festive backdrop for photos with Santa. In the early years, she also helped with art projects for children attending the event to do.
“The Coal Country Chamber of Commerce appreciates the time and energy this recipient has given to help Chamber programs over the years,” Besserman said.
BOURNE DELIVERS ADDRESS
In a brief 10-minute address, State Representative Bourne focused on strengthening ethical oversight in state government and ending the culture of corruption in Illinois politics. Spurred by the #MeToo movement and a series of sexual harassment scandals in the state legislature, Bourne said she is pleased to be playing a role in revamping the Legislative Ethics Commission and the role of the Inspector General. Insisting on ethical behavior on the part of those elected to legislative offices, she said, is critical to regaining the trust of constituents and businesses who deal with state government.
Bourne said Illinois’ nationwide reputation as one of the most corrupt states in the union has an impact not only on how government functions and how constituents relate to government, it also has an limiting effect on the people willing to step up as candidates for public office.
She recalled telling her grandmother about wanting to run for the legislature and her grandmother’s response.
“She said, ‘Oh no, everyone in state government is so corrupt’,” Bourne recalled.
Bourne said she was determined to prove her grandmother wrong (“not that anyone can prove my grandmother is wrong about anything”).
“We need to change the culture of corruption,” she said.
At the time, the Inspector General’s office was vacant, the previous Inspector General having been ousted under a cloud of scandal, and the Legislature Ethics Commission was basically stagnant. There was a backlog of complaints pending before the Inspector General, including complaints from women alleging that sexual harassment on the part of powerful legislators and legislative staff members.
“I was named chairman of the Ethics Commission about a year ago and people said, ‘How did that happen; did you change parties?’,” Bourne noted. The Commission, however, is a “non-partisan” committee, the chairmanship of which alternates between parties from one General Assembly to the next. In her role as chairman, Bourne said the Ethics Commission was able to pass legislation to strengthen the Commission and make it more effective in rooting out corrupt legislators. “This is maybe the biggest news that you haven’t heard about in the past year.”
As a result, she said, the Ethics Commission will soon present for confirmation the General Assembly’s first bi-partisan Inspector General nominee.
“Politicians usually aren’t the first to raise their hands and say ‘We want to impose stricter ethical standards on ourselves’,” she said. “It takes public outcry. You can make a difference if you step up and say something is wrong.”
She said she doesn’t remember a time in her lifetime when the Governor’s office, Senate, House and all constitutional offices are held by a single party. “This will be an interesting next four years,” she said. The single-party control of government, she said, “makes it even more important to have these watchdogs in place.”
Closing her remarks, Bourne thanked voters for “the privilege of representing you. It’s truly been the greatest honor of my life.”
CELEBRATING 20 YEARS
Early in the evening, Renee Katich, one of the CCCC founding board members, recalled past winners of the Business of the Year Award and recognized Jenni Alepra and Patty Ambrose, the only two founding board members attending the banquet. “I love those girls and we had a great time,” she said.
“When we started this 20 years ago, having this banquet and recognizing a Business of the Year was high on the list of priorities,” she said.
Representatives from eight past Business of the Year recipients were in attendance Saturday night: Pat and Rich Obertino of Obertino’s Greenhouse, which was later sold when the Obertinos retired; Andy Houser of Quality Flooring; Tina Olroyd of Country Financial; Ron and Dee Reid of Reid’s Service Heating and Cooling; Gina Gucciardo of Gucciardo, CPA; Michelle Dyer of Michelle’s Pharmacy; Jenni Alepra of Bernhardt’s Restaurant; and John and Dana Baggio of JoDanni’s Amore Restaurant.
Several of the past winners are no longer in business, she noted, including: A & G Hardware, the Chamber’s first Business of the Year recipient; Obertino’s Greenhouse; Coliseum Ballroom Antique Mall; Dippold Drugs, which later became Michelle’s Pharmacy, also a Business of the Year recipient; Bernhardt’s Restaurant and Twinnco Real Estate. Hicks Maytag Appliance Center continues to operate but with new ownership since John and Mary Hicks were named Business of the Year recipients in 2007.