Jess Laird collects his thoughts after being named Citizen of the Year at the Athens Chamber of Commerce Banquet Thursday night at Athens Country Club.

As hundreds of eyes stared up at him, Jess Laird stood at the podium Thursday night at Athens Country Club and seemed taken aback by the scene playing out before him.

Just moments earlier, he sat among a packed audience at the 64th Annual Athens Chamber of Commerce Banquet.

But now, at this moment, he stood before that same crowd as its Citizen of the Year.

Laird, president of First State Bank, is the latest in a long list of distinguished community members to be honored with the Chamber’s top award at its annual banquet. He was honored for his ongoing service to the community, a resume that includes serving as president of the Cain Center board, the Athens Rotary Club and the local branch of the American Cancer Society, among other acts.

Laird was presented with the Citizen of the Year Award by last year’s winner, Richard Sanders. Sanders described Laird as being very worthy of the honor and called him a good friend.

“He’s someone who’s served the community well and done a great job for a long time,” Sanders said.

Laird recalled moving with his family to Athens in 1984.

“I couldn’t think of a better place to raise your children than Athens,” Laird said. “Athens has been wonderful to me and my family.”

U.S. Congressman Jeb Hensarling, whose district includes Athens and Henderson County, also sent a videotaped statement honoring Laird.

“People in Athens, Texas, know if there are good things happening there, probably Jess Laird is involved,” Hensarling said. “Clearly, Athens, Texas, is a better place to work, raise your family ... because of what you do.”

Athens ISD Superintendent Dr. Fred Hayes announced Erin Smith as the Chamber’s Secondary Teacher of the Year, while Starla Ingram was named Elementary Teacher of the Year. He also announced the district’s teachers of the year: Glynn Linscott (Athens Annex); Ingram (Bel Air Elementary); Vicki Weatherford (South Athens Elementary); Vivian Hardgrave (Athens Intermediate School); Lanita Boening (R.C. Fisher); Laura Ballard (Athens Middle School); and Smith (Athens High School).

Linda Sifford announced the Ambassador of the Year Award, given this year to Kim Hodges. First runner-up for the award was Jeri Canatella, while second runner-up was Marlena Taylor.

Meshell Scott recognized EasTexas Agency (represented by Steve Barksdale) as the Chamber’s Small Business of the Year, and Lilly honored Embarq (represented by Don Houston) as the organization’s Corporate Sponsor of the Year.

Outgoing Chamber Board of Directors Chairman Kevin Lilly also presented the Chairman’s Awards. Charla Hendrix received the Exemplary Service Award, while Ron Baugh was honored as the Lifetime Service Award winner in one of the more poignant moments of the evening.

Baugh, who is retiring as president from Trinity Valley Community College after 20 years, called attention to all the college’s employees for their dedication to the campus.

“I appreciate them, and you as a community, for putting up with me in my role at the college, and as president, the last 25 years,” Baugh said. His replacement, Dr. Glendon Forgey, was also on hand. He was introduced to the crowd earlier in the evening.

On a night when the Chamber celebrated its successes, there was no shortage of praise passed around to the people that make it what it is.

Lilly, of Lilly Enterprises and McDonald’s, said 2007 was a successful year for the organization, noting 37 new members who joined last year pushed the Chamber well over 500 members.

“It’s just great to be in a community and county with that kind of support,” he said.

Lilly handed over his chairman duties to Mitch West of A.G. Edwards, who will serve in the post in 2008. West told the crowd on hand the Chamber is fiscally sound and that he’s looking forward to the year ahead. He also thanked Lilly for his guidance over the past year.

“There’s an old saying that if you’re not leading, you’re just going for a walk,” West said. “Kevin had a unique ability to make people want to go with him.”

Five retiring members of the Board of Directors also were recognized: Bud Hicks, Jeanene Villagren, Chris Russell, Barksdale and Houston.

Incoming board members for 2008 are Clint Davis (chairman-elect); Dick Grymonprez; Charla Till; David Stewart; Michael Morrison; Jess Laird; Joe Warren; Meshell Scott; Pete Cooper; Paul Dibari; Michael Ely; Mike Mayo; and John Trent.

The Chamber also recognized its top supporters. Platinum sponsors in 2007 were Embarq; Franklin Bank; First State Bank; Suddenlink Communications; and the late Ginger Murchison. Gold sponsors were Athens Independent School District; Athens Lumber and Supply; the City of Athens; Harry’s Building Materials; ONCOR Electric Delivery; Southside Bank; Atmos Energy; and Wal-Mart SuperCenter.

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