Environmentalist Chad Pregracke became the personification of the adage "preaching to the choir" when he challenged the Benton Area Chamber of Commerce banquet audience to "pick a cause, get involved, champion it and make a difference."
Pregracke, who has made cleaning up the Mississippi River the chief focus of his life, stressed the importance of involvement, while noting that by doing so people "can make the world a better place."
"One person at a time can make a difference," he said.
And one Benton man in particular was recognized for making a difference this past year in his leadership role for the chamber as well as the entire community.
Tom Baxley, co-owner and broker of Baxley-Penfield-Moudy Realtors, was named Citizen of the Year for 2012.
Gary James, executive director of the chamber, announced Baxley's honor after posing the following questions about this year's recipient without identifying him:
Do you try to make this a better place to live?
Did you make a difference?
Did your actions change the outcome?
How do you treat people?
Are you leading people to follow by setting an example?
"Before we ask this person to come up and stand here, I would like to tell you about why this award is so fitting," James said.
He noted that the recipient, still not identified, has "been in real estate business over 30 years; been the co-owner/broker of his own business for 25 years; is a past president of the Benton/Bryant Realtors Association; is a past Realtor of the Year; is a past president of the Arkansas Real Estate Commission; and was named one of 'Arkansas' 40 under 40 top business persons of the year'."
Other accomplishments James noted about Baxley included his serving as president of the chamber, serving on the Benton Advertising and Promotion Commission and serving on the Saline Memorial Hospital Foundation Board of Directors. He said he also is a longtime Rotarian and a past chair of the SMH 5K.
James noted that the honoree "speaks at various motivational seminars and loves to emcee the chamber banquet," a role Baxley repeating for this year's banquet.
James also pointed out that Baxley has taught the Men's Bible Class at First United Methodist Church for 21 years and serves as an usher in the church's
He added that Baxley is a marathon runner and "loves the Razorbacks," and he referred to Baxley's family, noting that he and wife Kie have been married for 24 years and have two sons, Bo, 20, and Jesse, 18.
"Aside from all this, he's a great friend," James said as Baxley came to the podium to accept his award.
"I don't get surprised very often, but I did this time," Baxley said.
"This is quite an honor," he added.
Baxley wasn't the only individual to receive accolades at the banquet. Other honors went to:
•Rick Bellinger, Top Recruiter of the Year for the chamber's 2012 membership drive.
James noted that Bellinger "in one two-hour period added 14 new members."
•Bellinger for a second honor, this time as Volunteer of the Year.
"It's all about volunteerism and Rick is proof that everyone can make a difference," James said. "He's the one person who really stood out in 2012."
•Cindy Burke, Ambassador of the Year.
"Cindy attended the most scheduled Ambassador Committee events in 2012 and has countless hours dedicated to these activities," James said. "She is a true ambassador for our chamber."
•Sydney O'Neal, Business Student of the Year.
"We're proud of you, Sydney," James said. "Good luck in your future plans."
Recognition also was given to outgoing board members Ray Baggett, Kim Minnix and Lisa Thornton and to the outgoing president, Jordan Woolbright.
James commended them for their "dedicated service and commitment to the community."
Holley Little was recognized as incoming president of the organization.
When Little addressed the group, her comments were tied to the chamber's emphasis on volunteerism, which she said she learned about early in life.
She referred to a cleanup project her mother had organized that involved Little and several friends when they were fifth-graders.
Other new officers of the chamber are: Sam Ed Gibson, vice president' Leigha Jones, secretary; Lori Terrell, treasurer; and Jordan Woolbright, past president.
Also participating in the event were: Retired Air Force Col. Guy Parker, who led the pledge of allegiance to the American flag; and Jim Gardner, minister of Northside Church of Christ, who gave the invocation.
Baxley recognized special guests at the event and expressed appreciation to the banquet sponsors: Everett Buick-GMC; First Security Bank; Rineco; Baxley-Penfield-Moudy Realtors; and Almatis.
He also thanked Holland Chapel Baptist Church for making its family life center available for the event. The building was filled to capacity.
The banquet meal was catered by Western Sizzlin and served by members of the Benton Mayor's Youth Advisory Council.