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Chamber honors the ‘heart’ of Lehigh

January 30, 2013
By MEL TOADVINE ( , Lehigh Acres Citizen

The Greater Lehigh Acres Chamber of Commerce honored the late Danny Ray Stephenson with its top honors Saturday night when he was posthumously named the "Heart of Lehigh." On hand to accept the award was his wife, Judy, and other family members.

The Pelican Preserve clubhouse's dining room off Treeline Blvd. was filled with chamber members and their guests. All stood to honor Stephenson as Fred Elliott, a member of the chamber's executive board, said they had received a nomination for the Heart of Lehigh that epitomizes exactly what this award is all about.

"It's not given to the person who gives the most money or the person who employs the most people; it is given to the person whose heart is in what they did - the person who without asking, gives without expectations of a reward or pay. The person who truly cares about the community they call home.

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Danny Ray Stephenson

Stephenson was 58 when he died of a massive heart attack in June of 2012. Most people who knew "Danny" either had attended the Lehigh Spring Festival or sat in on one of his musical gigs in and around Lehigh.

Stephenson was the emcee at the festival for the last several years. He took over as chairman of the festival upon the death of Charlie Mathney.

Elliott noted that Stephenson moved to Lehigh to help spread the mission of Up with People, a musical group that turned into several different groups since 1965 that travel the country.

"When he came to Lehigh, he knew this was a place he would feel at home. After meeting 'MeloDee' at a band audition, they not only started out raising a family but supporting their family doing what they loved, playing music.

Elliott said that Stephenson also took time to coach soccer locally and became a certified referee. He was also an active member of Leigh Community Services where he was master of ceremonies from time to time of the agency's Waiter and Waitress Luncheons which raised money to help the community's needy. He often provided music for the Fourth of July celebrations at Veterans Park and also was hired to be the deejay for the Lehigh Acres Middle School dances.

"And from that contact he was approached by Lee County Parks and Rec where he was asked to DJ monthly dances for the teens of Lehigh at the Recreation Center, the gigs that his wife, Judy continues to carry out today. It was for 12 years that Danny worked countless hours with the Spring Festival becoming known as the "Mouth of the Lehigh Spring Festival," Elliott said.

The annual event which is held in March every year has taken on the theme "You can't stop the beat, in memory of Stephenson.

The chamber also celebrated its 50th anniversary and Interim CEO and President Inke Baker noted that the program contained the names of all the former chairman and chairwomen of the chamber beginning with George Briede in 1970.

But J. Nathan Stout, who served as chairman in 1989, told the group that if the chamber was 50 years old, and that meant it was begun in 1963. He said it first met in a "shack" on Homestead Rd., and then moved a couple times and eventually purchased a house for its office on Lee Blvd., where it was for several years.

A few years ago, the chamber moved to its current home at 25 Homestead Rd. He said early history of some of the first chairmen was not clear, but said the chamber has become an important part of the Lehigh business community today. Many of the former chairmen were in the audience.

It was also the night that the new executive board of the Greater Lehigh Chamber of Commerce was officially sworn into office. State Rep. Matthew Caldwell of Lehigh offered the oath of office to members that include chairman of the board, Cindy Dodd of Reliance Bank; vice chairman, Al DeLeon of Al DeLeon & Associates; secretary, Fred Elliott of Coldwell Banker Preferred Properties; and treasurer, Cheryl McConahy of Sun Trust Bank.

Following a buffet dinner, several other awards were made, too.

Capt. John Haberman, the head of Bravo Station's Lee County Sheriff's Office in Lehigh, presented two awards. One, he said, was for the month of December, when there is not a scheduled luncheon, and the other was for the Officer of the Year.

Deputy Tillman was selected as the Officer of the Year for his part in saving a man who attempted suicide in Lehigh in December.

Tillman was the first officer to arrive to the call and talked to the distraught man.

Without warning, the man rain to the garage and climbed a ladder that he had staged there and at the top of the ladder was a noose which the man put around his neck and then proceeded to jump off the ladder in an attempt to hang himself.

Tillman entered the house at his own risk and proceeded to grab the man, when he saw him hanging. He quickly lifted the man and then cut the noose from the man's neck.

The man was taken to the hospital where he was treated and emergency personnel credited Tillman for saving the young man's life.

Another officer, Deputy Mark Gaither, was honored for helping to solve numerous vehicle burglaries in early December.

It came about when Gaither was about to leave his assigned shift that he saw a male riding on a bicycle at around 4 a.m. Because riding a bicycle without the use of a headlight between dusk to dawn is against the law, Gaither made a traffic stop and during questioning of the man, discovered that he had been involved in several overnight vehicle burglaries, with the last one being one that Gaither had just investigated.

Longtime chamber volunteer Joan Helen Sozzi was named the chamber's Volunteer of the Year.

Doris T. Moore of Lehigh Community Services was named as the Employee of the Year for 2012.

Al DeLeon was honored as the chamber's 2012 Member of the Year.

The keynote speaker for the evening was Mary Lynn Ziemer, the founder and CEO of Living A Joyful Life, an international consulting firm. She spoke for 20 minutes about the positive ways of living one's life and how to change negative thought to positive thoughts to be successful in life.

During the swearing in of new directors and officers of the executive board, all past presidents and directors were asked to come to the front of the dining room. The new executive board was surrounded by as many as 30 to 40 people.

Senior Volunteer Lynn Beck presented a scrapbook of events taken from newspaper stories and filled with other mementoes to Cindy Dodd. Beck has been keeping such a scrapbook for nearly three decades.

A solemn part of the night occurred when members were reminded of the death of its former chamber president and CEO, Gary Bright, who died from a heart attack several months ago following his retirement from the chamber.

Clay Miller, who appears on a morning TV show in Fort Myers, was the emcee of the evening. Awards were handed out by Inke Baker, who took over the reins of the chamber when Bright retired.



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