The Rotary Club of Flagler County is not exactly Obama country. And yet.
On Wednesday evening, at the end of a Christmas dinner that began with the singing of Jingle Bells and ended with the traditional toll of the Rotary’s bronze bell, 15 of the club’s 70 members were surprised to hear their names called out and asked to stand, shoulder to shoulder, to receive… President Obama’s Volunteer Service Award (see below).
The honorees: Mike Beadle , Bill Butler, James Callender , Joel Fallon, Jim Gardner, Jim Guines, Michael Kelley, Giulio Lancia, Jeanette Loftus, Carl Laundrie, Jim Manfre, Bruce Page, Kent Ryan, Howard Turner, and Charles Warren. (Five of them could not make it Wednesday evening.)
The award had been kept a secret from all 15, who appeared genuinely surprised.
“I mentioned at one of our Rotary clubs that we had some special awards that I didn’t believe had ever been given out to this club before, and I said to find out what they are, you had to come here tonight. So now it’s that time,” Rick Staly, the club president, said, after presenting several other awards. There was the obligatory—and graceless—titter from a couple of seated Rotarians just when Staly introduced the award “on behalf of President Barack Obama,” but the impudence didn’t go much further than that.
“So tonight,” Staly continued, “it is my honor to award each of you the presidential Service Award. The Award formerly known as the Lifetime Achievement Award is the highest level award that can be presented to a United States citizen in recognition of your volunteer efforts and our commitment to serving mankind. So congratulations to all of you.”
To get the award each individual would have had to contribute more than 4,000 volunteer hours to his or her community, as each of the 15 has. (The Presidential Volunteer Service awards also include lesser honors, such as gold, silver and bronze level awards, for fewer hours served.) Each one has also been president of the Rotary Club, and several have been long-time public servants or elected officials—Beadle, the Palm Coast fire chief, Butler, Palm Coast’s chief landscape architect, Laundrie, chief spokesman for Flagler County government for a decade, Guines, a school board member until health issues required him to slow down, and Manfre, the once and future sheriff.
The award was actually established by President George W. Bush’s Council on Service and Civil Participation in 2003, and has been handed out to 2.5 million American citizens or Green Card-holding immigrants. “It’s quite an honor for me to be able to represent the president to give you these awards tonight,” Staly said. He has just been named Manfre’s under-sheriff (the Manfre administration takes over for Don Fleming on Jan. 8). Staly and Manfre had spent most of the working day together on Wednesday, but Staly had kept the secret.
“I’m speechless,” Beadle said. “That’s a first for me.” (Being speechless, that is.) “This is like family. These people in this room will do anything for anybody, at any time. It’s kind of like my profession. Being a fireman I can go anywhere, good old firehouse, I’m welcome. Go to Rotarty, you’re welcome in any country in the world, so it’s really cool. And to get an honor like this, it’s really, it’s—I don’t really know what to tell you. Make something up for me.”
Laundrie recalls joining Rotary “as a kind of get in the community and do things for the community, but it became so much more than that. When you go out and help people, the real reward you get is from helping people, you see what you do.”
Manfre happened to be sidled up to the bar when he was approached by a reporter. He wasn’t getting a drink: he’s pledged never to drink publicly in his tenure as sheriff. At least nothing with a kick to it (presumably exempting caffeine). For Manfre, the award is the culmination of a glowing autumn.
“It was an incredible surprise,” Manfre said. “Rarely do I get chills over awards, but this one was very special. Being recognized by the president, it was just very surprising to get it, and it’s just an accomplishment, when the president recognizes your good works in the community, it really means something.” Manfre is an avowed fan of Obama. When the lined-up recipients were asked by a reporter in a how many of them had voted for Obama, close to half of them raise their hands. Manfre raised both his.
“Rotary is really my community spirit. It means giving back to the community. It means being able to have these kinds of networking opportunities as well, but it’s more than that. We do things not just locally., but internationally. We have microloans in the Philippines, we’ve been able to do this project here in the community, so it’s a great way to get back. There’s nothing that gives me more satisfaction than being part of the Rotary.”