WAKARUSA — The town of Wakarusa spent a recent Monday evening in celebratory style, triumphing among residents, friends, and supporters of the community.
At Nelson’s Banquet Hall, the night of Sept. 24, guests gathered beneath a canopy of soft lights, regaled among frequent and festive laughter, and offered tributes to individuals and businesses who’ve accomplished greatness in an extraordinary year of renewal and growth. The event is known as the Chamber Appreciation Banquet, during which various awards are bestowed upon local establishments that have demonstrated an ability towards exemplary progress. The evening’s festivities began with a lavish meal, followed by a lively speaking engagement from Roy and Christine Pickler, a Middlebury couple who accomplished both a faithful following and a regimen of good health through their recent appearance on the NBC reality show, “The Biggest Loser.” The night ended with the presentation of several awards of distinction.
Among the businesses receiving honors included Lechlitner Plumbing and Heating, Monteith Tire, and Schmidt Furniture and Cabinetry, all lauded with Business of the Year titles. Pro IT Solutions was chosen to earn New Business of the Year accolades, while longtime NorthWood High School teacher and coach Phil Lechlitner was christened Educator of the Year for 2011-12. A legacy esteem known as the “Friend of the Chamber” was given to Bob Glenn, with a special award representing Wakarusa’s gratitude being passed along to Jeanette Prenkert.
A common thread seemed prevalent when sharing tales of the businesses and some of their primitive origins. Some institutions arose from tiny buildings, while others came about through the foresight of hobbyists parlaying their talents into a profitable trade. And still others began with little more than an entrepreneurial spirit and limitless dreams.
The affair was at times entertaining, inspirational, and enlightening, and not only through the recollections of the Picklers, but often from the words of those being honored. Roy Pickler was visibly moved when sharing his experiences with wife, Christine, and how their televised journey to wellness transformed their bodies and their spirits.
“I gained my health back; I gained my life back,” he said before pausing a moment to regain his composure. Roy Pickler lost 102 pounds during his time on the program, while his wife dropped 82 pounds. They’ve maintained their conscientious habits and lifestyles since their return to Middlebury.
Christine spoke of how she submitted the Picklers’ application for consideration online, “on a whim,” then expressed surprise when the couple was contacted the very next day. “Somehow, by the grace of God, we made it on.” She laughed with the audience upon confessing, “After the audition in Chicago, we celebrated the way everyone celebrates in Chicago ... we went out for deep dish pizza.” Together, the Picklers spend a great deal of time traveling and are particularly passionate in talking with students about disciplining themselves against the epidemic of childhood obesity. Christine believes that this was the ultimate cause of their mission and that their investment in “The Biggest Loser” was a stepping stone. “God had a calling for us to be there,” while Roy noted, “We’ve dedicated our lives to trying to make a difference.”
Several other poignant moments highlighted the evening, such as Tom Lechlitner’s emotional sentiments, as their award comes after a time during which cancer has profoundly affected their family. “So many people have come up to us and told us how they’re thinking of us and praying for us,” he said. “That’s something you don’t always see. We’re very blessed.” He received the honor with his brother, Roger.
The pair reminisced for a time with the crowd about taking the reins of the family business, inheriting a love for the profession from their father, Tiny, who originally launched the enterprise as a television and appliance repair shop in 1954. The foundations of Lechlitner Plumbing and Heating began in a small retail space that was being rented from Dr. Robert Abel.
Accepting the award for Monteith Tire were Blake Hobart and Russ Price, store and service manger and leader of sales, respectively. The men have a combined total of nearly 50 years invested in Monteith Tire, and expressed pride in bringing their expertise to the Wakarusa shop, which opened in 1999.
“We appreciate everything that the community’s done to help us out since we started here,” Hobart said. “It’s been a great honor, and we thank you very much.”
Stephen Schmidt was given a trophy on behalf of his family owned venture, Schmidt Furniture and Cabinetry, which began in 1976. Many members of the community are also familiar with Schmidt and his wife, Rosetta, as proprietors of Rose Lane Farm Bed and Breakfast, situated southeast of Wakarusa.
Although enthusiastic with his thankfulness, Schmidt promised with a chuckle, “I’m not going to preach up here,” before adding, “This is the greatest honor I’ve ever had. What a privilege it is to be living in a community such as this.”
Alex Cook offered a heartfelt tribute to his family while accepting his honor, and gave a special mention of gratefulness to his wife, Natalie. Upon being handed his award, Cook said, “I haven’t been this nervous since the day I called Natalie from Notre Dame and asked her if I could quit my job to start my own business. I’m pretty sure the silence on the other end was her praying.”
Cook also noted how fortunate he’s been to have inherited his enterprising spirit from his father, Stan, who co-owns Cook’s Pizza with the elder Cook’s brother, Steve. “I’ve always known that I was meant to have my own business someday, and to be a part of the Wakarusa community, I couldn’t ask for anything better.”
Phil Lechlitner appeared humbled by his distinguished selection as Educator of the Year, made more meaningful by the revelation that he is a lifelong area resident and a graduate of NorthWood High School, the very school where he has taught industrial arts and served as a coach for the past 34 years.
“People sometimes ask me, ‘Why do you teach?’ and I tell them, ‘Where else can I find such splendid company?’” Lechlitner said. He relayed a tale of recently encountering a former student, who had aspirations of becoming a doctor, much to Lechlitner’s joy.
“It’s stories like that that we as educators love to share,” Lechlitner admitted. “We work to teach problem solving skills to our kids. I couldn’t have asked for a better thing.”
Longtime community activist Bob Glenn was named a “Friend of the Chamber” for his volunteer efforts at the Wakarusa Historical Museum and as a member of the Wakarusa Historical Society, as well as other civic organizations. Glenn was also cited for his involvement as a mentor for Wakarusa Elementary School.
Jeanette Prenkert, owner of Jeanette’s Fabric Boutique, was summoned to the podium to be recognized for her contributions to Wakarusa. Her store is preparing to close after being an integral part of the local business landscape for more then 30 years. As she approached the front of the room, she was welcomed with a standing ovation.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” Prenkert effused in her soft-spoken manner. “Thank you for all the support for all these years. Thank you for all of the support after the loss of my husband, Kip. And thank you for the blessing of being part of the Wakarusa community.” Former Chamber board member Ed Kinney served as the Master of Ceremonies, adding a comedic flourish to the night. One particularly riotous moment occurred when Kinney turned to Prenkert and said, “Jeanette, I’m a little (peeved) that you’re leaving. Now I’m going to have to go to Fort Wayne Tent and Awning to get fabric for my shirts.”
The awards segments were led by Nadine Lengacher, of J and N Stone and the current Chamber board president, along with Cindy Hill, of Miller’s Senior Living. Don Reynolds, director of Creative Arts and Community for Granger Community Church’s Elkhart site, provided the invocation.
A number of drawings were also held near the conclusion of the banquet, with prizes including an iPad sponsored by the Chamber, a Kindle Fire offered by J and N Stone, and various centerpieces created by Utilimaster. Kinney also donated three unique pieces of his original artwork, wall hangings crafted from colorful mediums such as glass, wood, and metal.