Chamber recognizes those who contribute to township

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WEST ORANGE, NJ — Regal Bank was honored as the Business of the Year at the West Orange Chamber of Commerce’s annual awards dinner at the Crestmont Country Club on May 18.

Capping off an evening of delicious food, excellent networking and heartfelt tributes to the various award recipients, Tina Parsons, the bank’s branch manager, accepted the final award of the night by thanking her bank team for providing the quality of service necessary to stand out in West Orange. Parsons said receiving the award would not have been possible without the time, effort and dedication to which her employees have committed themselves.

Of course, Parsons also expressed gratitude to the chamber for its recognition, pointing out that joining the group has greatly benefited Regal Bank since it opened in town in 2013.

“I am proud to be a member of the West Orange Chamber of Commerce,” Parsons told the hundreds of local merchants in attendance. “I have the privilege to work with such dedicated business owners who work tirelessly to better our community. I look forward to working with all of you in the future to continue to work to improve and support sponsorship and business-to-business collaboration.”

Speaking with the West Orange Chronicle, Parsons said that it was an “honor and a privilege” to be recognized by her colleagues after all that the WOCC has done for her organization. Three years ago when Regal Bank was new to town, she said the chamber allowed the bank to meet people and sponsor events such as the West Orange Street Fair and the Mayor’s 5K Walk/Run for ovarian cancer. Today, Parsons serves as the WOCC treasurer and has made sure that Regal Bank is an integral part of the township.

“It’s like a family,” Parsons said of her bank’s relationship with the community. In fact, she said that Regal Bank has become so connected to the township that it is now home to nine historical photographs of West Orange, which are proudly on display.

The fact that Regal Bank has become so ingrained in the community over such a short period of time speaks to how dedicated it is to the chamber, according to WOCC President Susan McCartney. In a May 18 phone interview, McCartney said the bank has demonstrated what it means to play a key role in a community by jumping in “with two feet” and embracing chamber programs. In particular, she said Regal Bank was a key supporter of the Shop West Orange property tax card when it first launched.

And after working closely with Parsons as both a colleague and friend, McCartney said she knows firsthand that the treasurer deserves to be acknowledged.

“She plays an active role,” McCartney told the Chronicle. “It’s not just to have her name on a board. She gets actively involved in the committees and the events. No matter what task you give her, it gets done — she doesn’t shy away. And she has a great personality. It’s just a pleasure to work with her.”

Recognizing Parsons and Regal Bank was not the only focus of the evening. Fresh off of leading the Seton Hall University men’s basketball team to a Big East Championship, head coach Kevin Willard advised the chamber members during his keynote speech not to expect a “microwave society,” where success comes to them as quickly as food is cooked in a microwave. Instead, he said it takes time and a lot of hard work to accomplish one’s goals.

“Nothing really happens without tremendous heart,” Willard said.

This can be seen in Willard’s own career coaching the Seton Hall Pirates. He recalled that when he arrived at the university in 2010 he was faced with a dire situation — transfer rates were high and graduation numbers plummeting. He even had the South Orange chief of police on speed dial as a result of some of the players’ unseemly extracurricular activities.

Willard knew that things would not change overnight — it would take a lot of effort to turn things around in his favor. So during the next six years he had his athletes focus on hard work while he recruited great players into the program, never losing sight of his goal to create a winning team. Even when things looked bleak during the recent season, he made sure the Pirates were always tenacious in pursuing victory.

Eventually it all paid off, culminating in a Big East Championship win in March. In addition, Willard said his players’ grade-point average is 3.2 and they have a perfect graduation record. But he stressed none of that would be possible had he not emphasized the importance of working toward success.

“You’re going to go through tough times in business,” Willard said. “And when you go through those tough times, it is imperative that you never lose your focus on outworking your competitor.

“Everybody just wants (success) right away — they want that instant gratification,” he continued. “Everybody’s forgotten that you must work for it.”

This advice could go a long way for the WOCC. Speaking with the Chronicle at the event, Willard pointed out that the chamber is very much like a team in that all its members are working toward a common goal — a thriving West Orange business community. At the same time, however, the Seton Hall coach joked that he hopes the WOCC does not take his words too seriously since it its members clearly know what they are doing.

One business that certainly can be considered an expert is the Green Hill retirement community, which was honored for its 150th anniversary at the dinner. Though Green Hill has not spent its entire existence in West Orange — it relocated from Newark in 1965 — Executive Director Toni Lynn Davis said it has been a proud member of the community for roughly a half century. It has demonstrated this too, with Davis pointing out that Green Hill purchased the “Welcome to West Orange” signs throughout the community. It also donates to the township’s police and fire departments and even offers discounted home care services to residents.

And to receive a tribute from the WOCC means a lot, Davis said.

“The fact that we’re being recognized by the chamber is wonderful,” Davis, who is the third of four generations of her family to work at Green Hill, told the Chronicle in a May 18 phone interview. “It shows that our contribution in West Orange is noticed.”

Green Hill and Regal Bank were not the only community members recognized during the chamber dinner. Turtle Back Zoo received the community award for going from the brink of shutdown in 1995 to becoming one of the biggest draws in West Orange. WOPD Det. Edwin Diaz was also recognized as the Police Officer of the Year for his pivotal role in solving a homicide that took place in town last year. On Dec. 17, 2015, Naji Everett, 26, of Orange was shot to death on Joyce Street and in March 2016, police arrested three men for the crime. Specifically, after getting a partial license plate number, Diaz created a computer methodology to find all of the possible license plate combinations before tracking down the right vehicle.

Additionally, John Gibson and Matthew Kehoe were honored as Firefighters of the Year for resuscitating two different people in a 24-hour period, including the grandfather to Gibson’s infant son. Gibson told the Chronicle that it was a “great honor” to be recognized by the WOCC. And being awarded for saving two people’s lives is especially meaningful to him.

“It feels great — you’re able to help people out, help the community,” Gibson said. “You’re able to let somebody else enjoy more of their life with their family.”

Christine Aker was also honored for helping people — in her case, hundreds of children — during her 29 years as a West Orange educator. After serving 17 years as a special education teacher in Washington Elementary School, Aker currently works as a learning consultant on Redwood Elementary School’s child study team, making sure students receive any extra support they may need.

But perhaps what most qualifies her as the Educator of the Year, according to Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Rutzky, is the fact that Aker is one of the “kindest and most compassionate” people one will ever meet. As proof, Rutzky read several comments from her colleagues, who all praised her as a caring person who always does “the right thing because it is the right thing to do.” One comment even recalled a time when Aker tracked down the bagpiper from “Dead Poets Society” to play at a funeral after a fellow teacher had asked for her help.

Yet Aker was modest when it was time to accept her award, instead telling funny stories about former students, like the boy who claimed Thomas Edison invented the English muffin. Speaking with the Chronicle, she said it was “very humbling” to be recognized, especially by the township in which she grew up and now works. In fact, she is so connected to the town that her father is a former WOFD firefighter, her brother-in-law is a WOPD officer and her brother works for the WOFD, even receiving the Firefighter of the Year Award in 2015.

The reason she stayed close to home stems from the fact that West Orange was such a comforting place for her as a girl and was still a great community when she was applying for jobs, Aker said. And after 29 years working in town, she said she has never lost her respect for the township.

“I love West Orange,” Aker said in a May 18 phone interview. “There’s a lot of great people who are still living here.”

Photos by Sean Quinn