WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Chamber of Commerce hosted its annual Community Awards Dinner at the Wilshire Grand Hotel on May 9, honoring the hotel as the Business of the Year in addition to handing out awards for Educator of the Year, Police Officers of the Year and Firefighters of the Year. Philip Alagia, chief of staff to Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr., served as the keynote speaker to a room full of West Orange residents at the annual celebration.
Mayor Robert Parisi kicked off the event by describing how society has changed over time and why it is important for community members to be recognized.
“We’ve come to a place in society where police are being vilified more often than honored, where firefighters and first responders are being second-guessed, and where teachers are being seen as more of a problem than part of a solution,” Parisi said at the event. “We can’t control what fact or interpretation of facts the media covers and we can’t control what becomes popular on social media. None of us can control the hearts and minds of others. But as a community in rooms just like this we can make the decision to honor our police officers, we can make the decision to respect our firefighters and we can make the decision to revere our educators. Tonight as a community, we come together and we say thank you.”
Alagia talked about the accomplishments Essex County has seen in the last year, mentioning that the Turtle Back Zoo saw more than 900,000 visitors in 2017 and that the South Mountain Recreation Complex saw two million visitors.
“I can’t even begin to imagine how much that helps the gas stations, the convenience stores and the local economy,” Alagia said, also describing the flamingo and leopard exhibits that will open at the zoo in the fall, as well as the renovation to the complex’s entrance.
“I want to congratulate everyone here tonight,” he said. “Government could not run without the people who do the work. Every day I see how hard these jobs are. Congratulations to all of the awardees.”
West Orange Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Rutzky presented Gary Franck with the Educator of the Year Award. Franck is a fifth grade science teacher at St. Cloud Elementary School and, as Rutzky joked, has spent his whole career in the same place.
“This is his 25th year — they have all been at St. Cloud, they have all been in science and they have all been in the same room. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that happen before,” Rutzky said at the event.
According to Rutzky, Franck’s students often return to St. Cloud to visit their former teacher; Rutzky told the crowd that the three children of his assistant, Elizabeth Hughes, were all taught by Franck at St. Cloud and, though they are now adults, they still talk about him.
“Mr. Franck still comes up with all three of her boys. When adults are still talking about a teacher, they have made an impact. His humor and academic rigor inspire students and he is beloved by his colleagues. He creates a sense of belonging.” Rutzky said that when he told Hughes who would be honored, “she was smiling from ear to ear.”
Rutzky read a series of comments about Franck from his current and former colleagues before closing with his favorite: “He is definitely the oldest kid in the fifth grade.”
Franck thanked his wife and two daughters for sharing him with his job, before thanking a table filled with his colleagues from St. Cloud.
“Thank you to the families and the community of St. Cloud, it takes a village,” he said at the event, singling out St. Cloud Principal Eric Price. “We have someone with that spirit and sense of humor and who can lead. It’s a family there and we do it together.”
Five firefighters shared the Firefighter of the Year Award. Chief Anthony Vecchio described how Capt. George Hesse, acting Capt. Matthew Keenan, Firefighter Patrick McGovern, Firefighter Craig Vanderhoof and Firefighter Nicholas Manzella saved 17-year-old West Orange resident Evan Farranto’s life when he accidentally shocked himself last year.
“The firefighters began CPR,” Vecchio said while describing the incident. “They then shocked him with an AED and he was taken to St. Barnabas Medical Center. He became responsive and made a full recovery.”
Vecchio said firefighters often don’t always see good outcomes when they are called to help someone, but the five who worked together to save Farranto put individual accomplishment aside for the team.
“They worked with the professionalism and compassion that we want every day,” he said. “A great effort resulted in a great outcome.”
Farranto presented the firefighters with the award, thanking them for saving his life.
“I’m very grateful for what you did,” he said at the event. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you, so thank you.”
Hesse briefly thanked the Chamber of Commerce for the award, as well as the paramedics and staff at St. Barnabas for their help in saving Farranto.
“Firefighters are not known for speaking, except for our chief,” Hesse joked at the event. “We are proud and humbled at the same time, thank you.”
When Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico in September 2017, Essex County asked for volunteer first responders to go the island and help residents in the aftermath. Officer Jeffrey James and Detective Sebastian deLeon of the West Orange Police Department were selected to go as part of the relief effort.
“Many West Orange officers volunteered, and they stood out for what they’ve done,” Chief James Abbott said while introducing James and deLeon at the event. “They missed Thanksgiving with their families and were there from November to December over 15 days. I think that speaks for itself.”
James said he has been a frequent visitor to Puerto Rico during the last 17 years while on vacations with his family.
“To see an island become a disaster zone was humbling,” he said at the event. “I was willing to help at the drop of a hat and I would do it again.”
“It was a pleasure to serve Puerto Rico for two weeks and it’s a pleasure to serve West Orange every day,” deLeon said.
West Orange Township Council President and Chamber of Commerce member Susan McCartney presented Wilshire Grand manager Ed Reagoso with the Business of the Year Award. McCartney described the Wilshire Grand as a reliable supporter of the community, saying the hotel provided shelter to those who needed it during Tropical Storm Irene and Superstorm Sandy, and did not hesitate to provide parking for jitney riders when the new route started last fall.
“It’s truly an honor to share a stage with police, firefighters and educators,” Reagoso said at the event while accepting the award, before thanking the hotel’s staff. “It’s not me, it’s a team. We wouldn’t be able to do the job we do without that support.”
Photos by Amanda Valentovic