LINCOLN — A record number of people came out to the Twin River Event Center on Thursday night to honor the author of a book on a record-setting baseball game, a Central Falls native who heads up the prestigious Wal-Mart Foundation and other special guests at the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council's 26th Annual Awards Dinner.
“This is the largest crowd we've gathered in 26 years,” stated an exuberant Bob Billington, president of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council, of the 250 in attendance. He noted the continued importance of the tourism industry to the state's economy and how much the rich and storied history of the Blackstone Valley contributes to those dollars.
Mark Brodeur, executive director of the Rhode Island Tourism Division, also voiced his support for what the communities comprising the Blackstone Valley have to offer to visitors from near and far. “You're not Disneyland here. You're authentic. You're wonderful!” he stated, to applause.
David Balfour, of Balfour Associates and chairman of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council's board of directors, said in his opening remarks that the region “has more to offer than any area in the entire world with what we have here.”
Barry Mechanic, publisher of The Times, The Call and Neighbors, as well as vice chairman of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council's board of directors, echoed Balfour's sentiments about the local area and added that the money invested in tourism “comes back to the community” and benefits businesses throughout the state.
At this year's awards ceremony, the BVTC chose journalist Dan Barry, author of Bottom of the 33rd, to receive the Blackstone Valley Excellence in the Arts Award. Barry, a former Providence Journal reporter who is now a columnist with the New York Times, recounted professional baseball's historic longest game, which was played by the Pawtucket Red Sox in 1981 at McCoy Stadium.
Earlier, Barry told The Times that he had once lived in Pawtucket, in a house on Maynard Street, where he could hear the games being played at McCoy Stadium. He also said he had played baseball in a men's league where the games had sometimes been “interminable,” prompting him to wonder what it must have been like for “the poor center fielder who had to stand out there for 32 innings on a cold night in Pawtucket.”
Barry said that one day while talking about the legendary game with a friend from Pawtucket, he had “an epiphany” and decided that the story should be told in a book. He noted that as part of his research, he relied on accounts of the game from old news clippings in The Times' sports archives—something he mentions in his book.
Also honored on Thursday was Margaret McKenna, who received the 2011 Blackstone Valley Excellence in Business & Education Award. McKenna is currently head of the Wal-Mart Foundation, and has been instrumental in supporting Blackstone Valley Tourism Council efforts.
McKenna has been the president of the Wal-Mart Foundation since 2007, where she oversees charitable contributions for initiatives in education, economic opportunity, the environment and health and human services. She is also the past president of Lesley University in Massachusetts, where during her tenure, she led the transformation of the institution from a small college with 2,000 students to a 12,000-student university with a national presence.
Prior to her role at Lesley College, McKenna served as vice president of Radcliffe, deputy counsel in the White House and a civil rights lawyer in the U.S. Department of Justice. She is also the recipient of numerous awards and honors from civic, educational and civil rights organizations, and holds seven honorary degrees.
McKenna told The Times that her job with the Wal-Mart Foundation is both fascinating and rewarding because it takes her all across the nation and to other countries around the world. “It's all about the things that are on the margins and what you can do to be helpful,” she said.
McKenna, who travels frequently in her job, said that when she arrived in Rhode Island for this event, she drove past her old house on Hedley Avenue and some of her old school buildings. “You can go home again, and you should,” she said, with a smile.
The daughter of two educators, including a father who was the first superintendent of schools in Central Falls, McKenna said she has been dismayed by the problems that have arisen over the past couple of years in her hometown, particularly regarding the teachers and administrators. She said that ironically, when the news first broke that the Central Falls teachers had been fired, she happened to be in the office of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. She said she expressed her concern to Duncan and told him that those involved “need to find a way” to fix the educational rifts. “It's all about the kids,” she stated.
Additionally, two individuals well known for their commitment to projects in the Blackstone Valley, Eugene A. Peloquin and Kathy Hartley, were inducted into the Rev. William Blackstone Society.
Peloquin, a Woonsocket native, has been a volunteer at the Museum of Work and Culture in Woonsocket since its inception and is the former executive director of Business Volunteers for the Arts in Rhode Island, an arts advocacy organization.
A teacher and principal with over 31 years in the North Smithfield school system, Peloquin is also a 33-year veteran of the U.S. Navy and Navy Reserve, and has spearheaded numerous projects that saluted military veterans.
Hartley is the president of The Friends of Hearthside Inc., the non-profit group that manages the historic Hearthside House in Lincoln. Under Hartley's guidance, the organization generates funds for the maintenance and restoration of the 1809 mansion through special events, gift shop sales, rentals and other fundraising. She also has an extensive career in marketing and previously served as former director of Leadership Rhode Island.
Due to the recent death of her father, Hartley could not be present at the ceremony. Hartley's son, Ryan, accepted the award on his mother's behalf, describing her commitment and passion to her preservation projects.
Chosen to receive the 2011 Footprints in History Award was The Community Players, Rhode Island's longest-running community theater group, now in its 90th year.
Dan Fisher, president of the Community Players, accepted for the group. He stated, “Local theater is important to tourism, and we're happy to be involved in their efforts.”
Also honored with the 3rd annual ARISTA Awards was KeepSpace Westerly, of Westerly, RI and Tourism Cares, of Canton, MA.