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Benton County Commissioner and longtime community volunteer Anne Schuster took home the first citizen award Friday night at the 69th Celebrate Corvallis event at the CH2M Hill Alumni Center.

“Ah, dang,” Schuster said to the crowd of 430 spectators. “I prepared a speech at 4 this morning and left it at home.”

Schuster then improvised, noting that she couldn’t think of a better place than Corvallis to volunteer.

“The community is family,” Schuster said. “The energy and optimism of the people … what they do here is amazing.”

Schuster then posed a challenge to audience members: “Get together and decide where the men’s cold weather shelter is going to be … and how to fund it.”

Earlier in the program, a former county commissioner, Jay Dixon, received the Jim and Ruth Howland award for special achievement.

Elizabeth French of CH2M, who introduced Dixon, noted his work at building and strengthening the community. French, who worked with Dixon on the Economic Development Advisory Board, praised him for his habit of “not speaking until he had something to say. His voice carried weight.”

Dixon said he was “honored — and somewhat humbled — to receive the award.”

An emotional high point of the event was the awarding of the senior first citizen honor to Les Whittle for his longtime work on behalf of veterans and his involvement in Memorial Day and Veterans Day rites. Whittle, who taught business at Corvallis High School after serving in the Navy during the Korean conflict, received the evening’s first standing ovation.

Robert C. Ingalls Business Person of the Year went to insurance agent Jim Kuhlman, a former pastor known for mentoring future business leaders plus his Chamber of Commerce, Rotary and church work.

“No small business owner is any better than their team,” Kuhlman said. “It’s your client base that makes it work, and I’m grateful that so many of mine are in this room. We will continue to aspire to achieve the goals we have.”

Other highlights of the evening included the awarding of the community organization/nonprofit honor to the Vina Moses Center, which triumphed amid the strong competition of BlueSun, CALYX Press, the Chintimini Wildlife Center, the Corvallis Public Schools Foundation, Furniture Share, Girls on the Run, the Grace Center for Adult Day Services, Jackson Street Youth Services, the Old Mill Center for Children and Families, the OSU Folk Club Thrift Shop and Work Unlimited.

Caroline Doyle of Crescent Valley High School won the future first citizen award. Doyle, the student body president at C.V., was honored for her volunteer work with Good Samaritan, her National Honor Society membership, fundraising efforts, musical talent and athletic ability.

Doyle called the honor “the coolest thing ever.”

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Contact reporter James Day at jim.day@gazettetimes.com or 541-758-9542. Follow at Twitter.com/jameshday or gazettetimes.com/blogs/jim-day.

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