Willie Mae Smith learned the day before she was to be honored that she would be the recipient of the 2015 Wendell Mayor’s Award. She says she was so surprised at the time, she didn’t know what to think.
Twenty-four hours later, she heard her name called and, like the day before, she didn’t quite know how to react. In fact, as she walked through a crowd of applauding audience members, she didn’t even hear the reaction.
“I got up there and turned around and looked. I didn’t even realize they were clapping until I looked up,” Smith says.
She’s not used to being the object of everyone’s attention.
The 73-year-old retired teaching assistant has made her life’s work about helping other people and that’s what won her the recognition at Wednesday night’s annual Chamber of Commerce banquet.
Mayor Tim Hinnant described Smith as “faithful and dedicated.”
“She has been a member of Pleasant Grove Baptist Church for over 50 years and has served in multiple ministries include the choir, first aid and kitchen ministries,” Hinnant said.
Smith currently leads the church’s food pantry ministry, which provides food to families who don’t have the resources to keep their own cupboards stocked. “I’m excited about the work we’re doing at the church. The food pantry is a way we can help so many people. And you just don’t realize how many people out there need that help until you do something like this,” Smith said.
In fact, much of Smith’s service has involved food. For year’s she served on the church’s kitchen ministry, preparing and serving meals for church and public functions alike. When her husband lived at Wellington Nursing prior to his death in 2013, Smith developed a close relationship with the CNAs who worked at the facility. She started making lunch for them two or three times a week over a three-year period.
She doesn’t perform her community service for the recognition it might bring, though, and so it came as a surprise that others wanted to recognize her. Still, it offered her a chance to encourage others to commit acts of public service.
“If you want to do something in your free time, find a way to help other people. It is the best feeling in the world to do something that helps somebody else,” Smith said.
Paul Harris honoree
Smith’s honor capped a night filled with recognitions during the chamber’s annual banquet. Jody Wall was recognized by the Wendell Rotary Club as a Paul Harris Fellow. Citing Wall’s service to the community, Rotary president Larry Vaughan said Wall “has found ways to serve his community in both the public and private sector. Wall is an officer with the Wendell police department, where he has led the agency’s Camp Choices program, an effort at helping children learn sound decision-making skills.
He has also served as youth softball, baseball and football coach for years.
Wall was a little more animated than Smith in his remarks after his recognition. “I moved to Wendell in 1995 and I am all about Wendell,” Wall said. He led the crowd in a call and response cheer for the town.
It’s not often that a chamber celebrates a company that’s leaving town, but Wednesday’s event was an exception as the group recognized the contributions Kannon’s Clothing has made to the town in nearly 100 years of operation in Wendell. The company will move its operation to Raleigh early next year.
The recognition drew an emotional response from the four Kannon family members who now run the business, including George Knuckley, who, in a halting, sometimes quivering voice, explained that Wendell has been a good place for his family to grow up and to operate a business.
“But there comes a time, when you have a vision for your business 25 years down the road, that things have to change,” Knuckley said.