Auburn Mayor Ron Anders made outstanding residents part of the first State of the City address in the Jay and Susie Gogue Performing Arts Center.
Anders introduced the Mayor’s Lamplighter Awards during the recent speech. These awards recognize members of the community who go above and beyond typical efforts and make a difference in their area.
There were six recipients: Alvin Willis, Cynthia Boyd, Donna Young, Eron Smith, René Waldrop and George Echols.
Echols, who died earlier this year, was represented by his wife, Pat, and children, Melanie and Kevin.
“These individuals are the first recipients of the mayor’s lamplighter awards to recognize all that they have done to shine Auburn’s light for us all,” the mayor said.
The recipients were scattered through the audience with no idea that they would be so honored. They assumed they were just there to hear the mayor’s speech.
Alvin Willis“Businesses, vehicles, people, shopping, eating and toilet paper throwing, art shows, parades, trick or treat, concerts and who would’ve ever thought it, basketball practice, all occur within it’s footprint,” Anders said of downtown.
“The young and the mature, babies in strollers, students on bicycles, visitors and residents all can be found on any given day in downtown Auburn, and the one thing, each event, each person has in common is that they can all make a big mess.”
Despite this, Anders said, Toomer’s Corner and downtown Auburn is clean and beautiful thanks to Alvin Willis, who does downtown maintenance.
“I like doing what I do and I like making a difference in other people’s lives, as well as mine,” Willis said.
Willis is downtown early in the mornings to keep Auburn clean and he said he truly enjoys his work. The award, Willis said, may inspire him to work harder.
“A lot of times, when I get (downtown), you will never know what you’re going to find down there,” he said. “There’s a lot of stuff that goes on down there and I’ll be the first one there every morning to see that; but once the daylight hits, I’ll have everything cleaned up. Most people don’t get a chance to see that part.”
Willis said that since winning the award people have stopped him on the street to congratulate him.
“(The award) means so much,” he said. “It means that, for it to be the first Lamplighter Award given by the mayor, it means a lot, especially (since) I didn’t know I was going to receive it.”
When his name was called and Willis realized the award was being given to him, he sat in shock before he could even stand to receive it.
“Ask a downtown merchant, he isn’t a city employee, he’s not a faceless operator zoning in on a task, no, he is a partner, a friend, just as much a part of downtown Auburn as they are,” Anders said.
The city uploaded a video to YouTube (www.youtube.com/watch? v=vVrfxDjq4XY) to introduce Willis to city residents.
Anders has known the second Lamplighter Award winner since he was in fifth grade.
“In her second year of teaching, she encountered a restless and a talkative fifth-grader that challenged her, but I stand here tonight and say to you with certainty that she made a huge difference in his life,” Anders said, referring to himself.
Cynthia R. Boyd, the second Lamplighter Award winner, taught at Boykin middle school for 30 years starting in 1973 and retiring in 2003.
Though she taught fifth-grade social studies, some children were below the fifth-grade reading level and some above, but she taught them where they were.
Boyd explained that as a teacher, there is not as much instant gratification. Instead, she is seeing the reward of her efforts now as she watches her students. These students are grown now and, like Anders, are leading fulfilling lives.
“The reward is seeing that the students that you had have come to adulthood and they are productive citizens, making contributions in all walks of life,” she said. “So it’s a delayed reaction but it is truly a pleasure and a blessing to be able to see your children be successful in whatever their chosen career paths are.”
As a teacher, Boyd described herself not only as an educator, but a nurse, a support system and a friend.
One thing Boyd misses about teaching is talking with the children.
“She gave selflessly of her time, her talents and her treasures to support our school,” said Debbie Brooks, Pick Elementary School principal. “She read to children, helped teachers in the classroom and volunteered countless hours to support our school in any way possible.”
Donna YoungBehind the Glass boutique has had its fair share of changes over the years. Originally an art gallery and restaurant, the boutique is now a popular downtown shop.
The third Lamplighter Award winner, Donna Young, will add president of the downtown merchants association to her résumé soon.
“Small business is one of the primary factors in giving a city its personality,” Anders said. “Small-business owners are also many times the leaders that spend the extra time to serve Auburn in the areas of nonprofits, civic causes and community celebrations.
“As a business owner for the last 32 years, our next award winner has shown an amazing aptitude for change.”
Young had adapted her business to what works best, from one-time bookstore to thriving boutique. One of the most rewarding parts of this business, that is right in the heart of a college town, is getting to work with people, she said.
She said it feels good to be recognized for giving back but that this will inspire her in the future to keep giving.
“I was just so honored [to receive this award], because there are so many people in this city who do so much,” Young said.
Eron SmithAuburn High School choral director Eron Smith has been changing lives and teaching music since 2007 and was awarded the mayor’s fourth Lamplighter Award.
“In a moment of celebration after a superb performance last year, our next award winner reminded his students that the accolades and awards do not matter if our character and integrity are not strong,” Anders said. “Those young people proceeded to go back to every room that they had been in all day and cleaned up before they brought their trophies home to Auburn.”
When Smith’s name was called, there was not only a standing ovation from the crowd, as each recipient received, but a roar of cheering from students throughout the auditorium.
Smith has been teaching students at Auburn High School for 12 years, making differences in the lives of many students.
“The thing that I love about my job is that I get to spend a lot of time with the kids that are in my program,” Smith said. “I see them every other day for an hour and a half, but then we also have extra rehearsals after school and performances and the competitions that we go on, trips and all that kind of stuff.”
“We spend a lot of time together, so I get to build a really close relationship with the kids.”
For some of the children in his program, choir is their escape. They can come to him and forget about the other, negative, things going on in their life.
“It’s definitely a blessing to be able to provide that for kids,” Smith said.
Smith has been able to see students come in and watch their demeanor do a 180, from shy and soft to confident in the environment. Anders said that this is what happened with his own child and that Smith brought them out of their shell.
“(This award) was huge for me, personally,” Smith said. “Just because, you know, a lot of times in a lot of communities, especially in the South, we really feel like the arts get overlooked a lot of times for academics and athletics and we forget about the arts.
“A lot of times, because of the time that I spend away from my family and away from my kids, for the mayor to see the work that I do and value the work that I do enough to give me an award, was just almost validation and it really lit a fire in me to really push forward and continue on even when I’m tired.”
René WaldropThe fifth Lamplighter Award winner began a program to assist children in the hours after school, purchasing property across the street from Ridgecrest, Auburn’s largest public housing unit, Anders said.
René Waldrop built a home where children could come — Our House.
“By investing in these children’s lives and by investing in the neighborhood, literally, she is leading a ministry of hope to give these kids a promise and a future,” Anders said. “The one-time attorney is now a part-time professor and a full-time supporter of the children at Ridgecrest.”
Waldrop’s ministry began after volunteering with her Sunday school class and assisting a woman with two boys who lived in Ridgecrest.
Waldrop felt called to invest in these children, so she opened her first after-school program in a home in 2014. It filled to capacity fast, leading them to build a second home.
“The ministry of Our House is to provide a Christian home environment for these kids to grow spiritually, academically and socially,” Waldrop said.
Each afternoon children get off the bus in waves and head over to ‘Our House’. They have a snack and get started on their homework.
Due to the generosity of others, Waldrop said, they provide opportunities for these children that they may not otherwise have, such as having a charter bus to take all of the children to a football game at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Now, with that second home, Waldrop has more room to accommodate all the children without scheduling different groups for different days.
The nonprofit program is funded through donations, and boasts close to 80 volunteers, Waldrop said.
“People are so willing to help when they can see [the need],” Waldrop said. “I read a quote some time ago that says ‘(People) don’t give to you because you have a need, they give to you because you’re meeting a need’, and I feel like that’s so true of what we’re doing.
“I mean people are constantly saying ‘what do you need, how can I help.’”
George EcholsThe final Lamplighter Award winner was George Echols, who passed away earlier this year. His widow, Pat and two children joined Anders onstage on his behalf.
“(Echols was) one of the greatest men I’ve ever known in my life,” said Melanie Chambless, Echols’ daughter. “He was very hardworking, he was very actively involved in the community, because he loved this community.”
Anders listed the many organizations and groups that Echols was a part of, including the Kiwanis Club, the commercial development authority, Auburn 2020, the Boys & Girls Club, the March of Dimes, the Auburn Heritage Association and more.
“Through his work at his church, Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church, through his work as a mason, his gentleness was known to everyone,” Anders said.
Ironically, Chambless thinks that her father wouldn’t have thought he deserved the award.
“He never sought any type of recognition, he just was a servant,” she said. “He always wanted to do something to help others and to help his community so that’s the reason why I think he does deserve it.
“Now if he were here he’d probably tell you, ‘I’m just doing what God’s called me to do’.”
The night of the address was actually Echols’ wife’s birthday.
“She was overcome with emotion to receive such an honor as an added birthday gift,” Chambless said.
Echols died Sept. 18 after a battle with stomach cancer.
“I knew how much he loved Auburn,” Chambless said. “I had no idea how much Auburn loved him.”