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A spirited gathering in Gowanda

Each year, Gowanda recognizes those who have made a difference in the community. Though the recipients may think they have just done their small part, it is the community members who realize how much better Gowanda — and the area — is because of the efforts of these individuals. And this year's Gowanda Area Chamber of Commerce Spirit of Gowanda winners have truly stepped up and made a positive impact on the community.

On the evening of March 31, a crowd of over 150 gathered at American Legion 409 to thank Doris Jones, Heaven Scent/Copy Central and Zachary Steever for making Gowanda a better place in which to live.

The evening began with Master of Ceremonies Rob Gaylord welcoming everyone to this year's celebration, an invocation by Pastor Randy Pratt of Assembly of Gowanda and dinner catered by Goode's Restaurant. And, after opening remarks by Chamber President Jennine Sauriol, guest speaker Jason Zollinger was introduced.

"The pride of South Dayton," Gaylord enthused, Zollinger is a six-time winner of the game show "Jeopardy!" and came in second in the tournament of champions. Gaylord went on to say that everyone should have a look at the champion's necktie. Sporting a photo collage of his eldest daughter, Muriel, the tie is Zollinger's "lucky tie," Gaylord explained, adding that the neckwear certainly proved lucky for the challenger during his Jeopardy! run. The emcee quipped that in the future, "You may find the tie on e-bay to pay for college tuition in a few years!"

Zollinger said that when he was just a "small-town kid," he had a dream. He said some may dream to be the star of a Hollywood movie, or to find stardom on the sports field, or a high political office, or even, in the military, the service. "My dream was a little different," he said. "I just wanted to be on a game show."

He continued: "Not just any game show ... a fast-paced quiz show that had been recently been resurrected, hosted by a slick Canadian, who had an awesome '80s mustache, named Alex Trebek!" After 22 years of trying, Zollinger got his wish.

So, with wins under his belt, and nearly a quarter of a million dollars later, Zollinger waits to see if there will be a "farewell tournament" in 2014, when Trebek may consider retiring after 30 years of hosting Jeopardy! Zollinger, who had been ranked eighth in winnings over the course of the show, now stands at 14th after others have exceeded his winning total.

His Jeopardy! journey, he believes, is over, unless they ask him back for another tournament. However, "my Team Jason is still with me," he said.

It was then time for the awards presentation.

First to be honored was Business Award winner Heaven Scent/Copy Central.

Speaking on behalf of Heaven Scent, Mark McHale began by thanking the community for nominating them for the Spirit of Gowanda Business Award. "It's a great honor and the folks here [referring to the group gathered next to him at the podium] work hard every day. They enjoy coming to work and seeing people in the community stop and say hello to them, and interacting with the community."

McHale proceeded to give a brief history of Heaven Scent/Copy Central.

In 1997, and as a result of the collaboration between WNYDDSO and the Buffalo Psychiatric Center, the retail store was opened up in the Gowanda area. Its purpose was to get consumers integrated into the community and into a work setting. Although Buffalo Psych Center is no longer a partner, "as you can see, we're still going strong after 15 years and we hope to keep going strong for many more years," McHale said.

One feature that customers of the store should see soon, McHale said, is the capability to use credit cards to pay for purchases.

Next to be recognized was Doris Jones, who was this year's Community Service Award winner.

Friend Edith Schell provided a video message to introduce Jones, including a brief history of the honoree's involvement with music, from school to church, and how Jones accompanied any student who asked her. Those who had children graduate from kindergarten at the Aldrich Street Elementary School will remember seeing Jones at the piano, as the youngsters said goodbye to kindergarten and started their journey to first grade and beyond.

Jones was also active in the PTA, serving as treasurer. Now retired, she leads the choir at her church.

When the Gowanda Food Pantry needed new leadership, following the retirement of Denny and Mary Crouse, Jones answered the call. Now, rather than just helping to add music to others' lives, she helps fulfill their basic need of food as well.

Upon accepting her award, Jones acknowledged some of her former students who were in attendance at the awards dinner, including Zach Steever, another Spirit of Gowanda award winner.

"Those who know me, know I can be a little independent," Jones remarked. "But, doing this job [food pantry] has taught me something ... and that is that you can't do it alone, nor should you. So, I have learned to ask for help. I've got the best team, I tell them what to do and they do it!" she joked.

She went on to thank those who help her with the food pantry, both on site and off site, and also all those who have donated to the pantry.

Next, the Excellence in Youth award was presented to Zachary Steever.

Gowanda Mayor Heather McKeever spoke about the award winner's accomplishments.

"I met Zach when he was 15 years old or so," Mayor McKeever said. "Unfortunately, it was during the flood, but fortunately, I was able to meet such a fine young man."

McKeever brought a "prop" along ... a T-shirt from the "Valley Brigade," what Zach and his fellow group members called themselves. Their mission? To help with the Flood of 2009 cleanup.

"He [Zach] came in with a smile and a positive attitude, and he left with a smile and a positive attitude," McKeever said, "except that he was very dirty and covered in mud.

"You've made you parents and family proud; you've made the community proud, and you'll do great things," McKeever concluded.

The award winner, in his acceptance speech, said, "I always thought that given the opportunity, I would never change anything about the way I've been brought up here in Gowanda. I've been blessed with an amazing, beautiful family, who is here tonight ... and I go to a school where the teachers are devoted everyday to promoting education, and devoted to their students. And, I live in a community where someone who stops me downtown, I know that they really want to know how I'm doing. I wouldn't trade that for the world."

Steever thanked all those in attendance, and his family, and he congratulated his fellow Spirit of Gowanda winners.

Each award winner was also presented with a proclamation from Erie County Legislator John Mills.

Before the evening's festivities ended, Jason Zollinger entertained the crowd by hosting a mini Jeopardy! game, pitting table against table. When all was said and done, one successful table of "trivia experts" was declared the winner. For their efforts and knowledge, they were awarded gift cards for Tim Hortons.

With that, and Chinese auctions baskets and door prize presented to lucky ticket holders, the evening came to a close. As everyone headed out the door, more words of congratulations were bestowed on this year's winners: Heaven Scent/Copy Central, Doris Jones and Zachary Steever.
COMMUNITY SERVICE AWARD — Doris Jones, retired music teacher and now director of the Gowanda Food Pantry, receives the Spirit of Gowanda Community Service Award. (Photo by Mary Pankow)

BUSINESS AWARD — Gowanda Area Chamber of Commerce Board member Mark McHale, far right, introduces the Heaven Scent/Copy Central Spirit of Gowanda Business Award winners. In photo are Leona Colvenbach, MaryAnn Goodemote, Kathy Reese and Elizabeth Huff, staff members; and workers Sally Alton, Mark Chatoff, Connie Gabel, Dennis Godard, Jill Hyman and John Roach. Missing from photo is Kevin Andres. (Photo by Mary Pankow)

JEOPARDY! CHALLENGE — Jeopardy champion Jason Zollinger, assisted by Gowanda Area Chamber of Commerce Board member Don Rogers, tests the knowledge of the Steever family. (Photo by Mary Pankow)

EXCELLENCE IN YOUTH — Zachary Steever expresses his appreciation for being chosen for this year's Spirit of Gowanda Excellence in Youth award. (Photo by Mary Pankow)

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