Chamber's Citizen of the Year is well deserving of the honor

Posted: Sunday, November 01, 2009

A week ago Saturday, I had the distinct privilege of serving as the Master of Ceremonies at the Juneau Chamber of Commerce's annual dinner at Centennial Hall.

While I've attended this event many times, this was the first time I was asked to run the show, and it certainly was a different experience than just attending. Juneau's Chamber is a vibrant organization, with more than 350 members ranging in size from individuals and small businesses to the medium and large firms in our community, and the national corporations with a presence in Alaska's capital city. While the Chamber meets weekly to allow members to connect and interact, it is the annual dinner that shines as the jewel in the crown of the annual calendar.

Given the importance of this event, I tried to involve myself as much as possible in planning for it. I was greatly concerned, then, when I discovered that serious illness was going to prevent the small ensemble I had arranged to provide musical entertainment for the evening from performing as planned. I got this call only four days before the event, and it is fair to say I freaked out. I am grateful beyond words that Ron Maas and his Thunder Mountain Big Band stepped in for their colleagues who could not play, and wowed the crowd with their classic dance tunes.

In addition to being a fun social event, the annual dinner is an important fundraiser for the Chamber. Members generously donate a bevy of fabulous items to be auctioned off, bringing in crucial operating funds.

But the most important part of the evening's proceedings is the presentation of a few select awards to individuals who particularly deserve the community's recognition for their efforts. Chief among these, a person is designated as Citizen of the Year annually as a means of expressing the business community's appreciation for extraordinary efforts and actions that have made Juneau a better place to live.

The process of selecting the Citizen of the Year is done in executive session. Nominations are solicited in the months leading up to the annual dinner, and anyone in the community is free to put forward a person's name. After the nominating period closes, the past presidents of the Chamber get together and evaluate the slate of nominees and choose the one they think is most deserving. After this decision is made, it is a closely guarded secret until the honoree is announced during the annual dinner.

I was not privy to the identity of the 2009 Citizen of the Year until his name was actually spoken that Saturday night. While I could have peeked at the engraved gold pan tucked away in the podium, I chose to remain in the dark with the rest of the crowd, and to enjoy the surprise when the secret was revealed. I was more than just pleasantly surprised when it was announced that Dick Knapp was being honored.

Admiral Knapp has a very long history of distinguished service in Alaska and in Juneau. He served in the U.S. Coast Guard for 33 years before achieving the rank of admiral. Upon retiring from his military career, he continued in public service as commissioner of Transportation and Public Facilities in Democratic Gov. Bill Sheffield's administration. When he and his boss no longer saw eye-to-eye, he left state government, but he didn't stop advocating for important and worthy causes, foremost among them creating a surface transportation link to Juneau.

It will come as no surprise that I admire Knapp's perseverance in support of the Lynn Canal Highway, but that is far from the only reason I admire him.

I first got to know the admiral when he courageously ran for mayor back in 2003. Running against a popular incumbent, he had an uphill battle, and as a retiree he could easily have chosen to spend his time on other pursuits. But he bit the bullet, and really put his all into that campaign. I went door-to-door with Knapp, and I can tell you that he brought a level of energy and a sense of optimism to the campaign that one doesn't see in every candidate for public office. His cheerful demeanor and tenacity impressed me then, and I have admired him ever since. I later had the pleasure of serving on the board of the Friends of the Alaska State Museum with Knapp's wife, Pam, and getting to know them both better since then, I am most grateful that they've graced Juneau with their presence and many contributions to our community.

To be the Chamber's Citizen of the Year ought to mean that others want to emulate your behavior and accomplishments. I can only hope that if I make it to the distinguished age of 80, I'll have done as much as Admiral Knapp, a man in whose footsteps I'd be proud to follow.

• Ben Brown is an attorney living in Juneau.

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