It was the year of the woman Tuesday night as the Geneva Chamber of Commerce named two recipients of its annual Wood Award for community service, school board member Mary Stith and – a little closer to home – its own president Jean Gaines.
“Both Jean Gaines and Mary Stith have shown us what it means to be excellent,” said Scott Lebin, chairman of the chamber board, to a crowd of 250 at Eagle Brook Country Club in Geneva.
Amid tears and surprised gasps, first Stith was recognized for her longtime volunteerism in supporting Geneva children and the community.
While her four children were in school, Stith volunteered for the PTO as a committee member, chairwoman and on the executive board, including being a host family twice for the AFS Intercultural Program.
Stith volunteered for six years at the Geneva Academic Foundation, serving as president in 1998. Currently, she is serving her third term on the school board, which also entails her attending auxiliary district meetings as the liaison.
“Ever since I met her in the Geneva Mothers Club meeting nearly 25 years ago, she has been selflessly giving of herself,” Mary Jane Johnson of Geneva said in a video of her nomination. “She has opened her heart and her home to the Geneva community … She has always given her very best.”
“Her commitment has been incredible,” said Geneva High School Principal Tom Rogers in the same video. “Her commitment to the Geneva school system and to our community has been truly admirable. And I would encourage younger parents in the community – if you’re looking for someone to emulate, this is your example.”
Former superintendent Michael Jacoby of Geneva put it more simply: “You are one of Geneva’s best.”
Stith was emotional in accepting her award, saying others were more deserving of the award.
“I love this community,” a tearful Stith said. “And I love our schools. And I love the students, and I’m very very proud of the work my board members have done. Thank you.”
The chamber surprised Gaines by also awarding her a second Wood Award. The Chamber has only given a double award to two married couples in the past.
Gaines, who has been with the chamber for 36 years and president for 33 years, was credited for her influence in accommodating growth while maintaining the city’s historic ambiance.
Gaines has been instrumental in keeping alive the 64-year tradition of Swedish Days and has been the driving force behind the Festival of the Vine, Geneva Arts Fair, Christmas Walk and took ownership, more than 25 years ago, of the Christmas House Tour from another organization.
Mayor Kevin Burns in his nomination video, said Gaines shows “extraordinary commitment, dedication, passion and unyielding contribution of time and talent to make our community very special.”
Lebin said Gaines’ contribution to the community “has made it a better place to live, a better place to work and a better place to have fun.”
Gaines’ work in promoting the city and its festivals also garnered her a proclamation from Gov. Pat Quinn, who declared Tuesday as Jean Gaines Day in the state of Illinois.
“We worked for the past year to make this a surprise for you, Jean,” Lebin said, “which was difficult, but I think we accomplished our goal. You are … the epitome of what a Wood Award winner should be.”
Gaines thanked them for the award. Then she said, “I’m still not retiring.”