WEST ORANGE, NJ -- The West Orange business community honored businesses, organizations and individuals at its 2016 West Orange Chamber of Commerce Awards Banquet on Wednesday. Held at the Crestmont Country Club, the annual event also gave some special recognitions.

WOCC President Susan McCartney noted that police and firefighters were among those to be honored. "As the collective nation polarizes itself in a Presidential election, we are here to recognize organizations, the first responders who protect and serve our community and the business of the town," said McCartney. 

Speaking of the growing WOCC, McCartney added, "We here create a network of individuals and businesses that work together to strengthen the fabric of our town."

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West Orange Mayor Robert Parisi addressed the attendees, lamenting the world of instant opinions on social media, and how every problem is now seen in terms of black or white with no grey areas. He also touched on how dialogue in the current world has changed, saying, "In the last five or six years, there's been a new way of looking at things -- the way we talk about police officers and first responders, or teachers or business owners."

"Politicians and the media tell us 'how you need to do this job,' but they have never been a police officer or first responder or teacher or a business owner," he said. "But real people in a really complicated world like those in West Orange know how to do their job with grace and dignity," he concluded.

Also speaking was Seton Hall Men's Basketball coach Kevin Willard, who said the corralation between sports and business is close. "Nothing really happens without time and hard work," Willard said, noting he tells his team "we need to outwork everyone" to get ahead.

"Sometimes you forget what it's all about," Willard continued, "but you need to work hard and never lose sight of your goals" to succeed, adding it took six seasons for Seton Hall to reach the goal of being the best.

Paul Petigrow, WOCC dinner chairman, presented a special recognition award to Green Hill Senior Living on their 150th Anniversary. President and Executive Director Toni Lynn Davis accepted, and joked "who looks this good at 150?" 

Davis paid special recognition to the residents of Green Hill, saying volunteers there "learn all of their history through our resident, from survivors of the Holocaust to all of the wars....these folks have seen it all." Davis is the third generation of her family to run the facility, with the fourth generation, her daughter, about to join as well.

McCartney lauded the Turtle Back Zoo as she presented the Community Award to the Essex County facility. Parks Department Director Dan Salvante recalled how the zoo was nearly closed forever in 1995, but has been revitalized to become one of the top destinations in New Jersey. More than 750,000 people visited the complex in 2015.

Turtle Back Zoo Director Brint Spencer noted in an interview with TAPinto that he has been in his job for eight years, and things "are just going to get even bigger." What's next after this week's unveiling of the African Adventure area with the giraffes and other animals? "The town seal includes the lion, so that's the logical choice...and that will be coming soon," said Spencer.

Police Chief James Abbott praised the hard work of Detective Edwin Diaz, the Police Officer of the Year, in cracking a key clue, a partial license plate number, in the investigation of the December murder on Joyce Street, which had spilled over from Orange. 

"The older generation of police say the young cops don't do enough old school police work, while the young ones say the older cops are afraid of technology," he said. "But Detective Diaz married both systems to help find the suspects in the case."

Firefighters Michael Kehoe and John Gibson were honored by Fire Chief Peter Smeraldo for their work in "bringing people back to life." The firefighters, he said, had seven CPRs between them during the year, with "two in less than 24 hours while they were on shift together."

Smeraldo continued that in July 2015, Gibson's son was born, and as Gibson viewed him through a window at the hospital, "standing next to him was one of the men he saved."

Educator of the Year Christine Aker was lauded not only by Superintendent Jeff Rutzky, but also by her colleagues who gave Rutzky a list of things they admired about the 29-year veteran educator. He summed up the comments by saying, "She is the kindest, most caring and compassionate person you will ever meet, as well as most respectful," and added, quoting a colleague of hers, "she completely understands" how to work with people, help children succeed and make things better.

Akers joked she "didn't know where those 29 years went, and now I'm working with some of my former students." She also joked of some of the fun things her students have asked or said to her over the years including 'how do you spell V-C-R?' or giving the definition of a veteran as 'someone who doesn't eat vegetables.'"

Regal Bank was honored as Business of the Year for their work in many projects and organizations in and around the West Orange community. Petigrow especially praised Branch Manager Tina Parsons, who is also treasurer of the WOCC, saying "there's no doubt this town has been strengthened by the presence of Regal Bank and Tina Parsons."

For more information on the West Orange Chamber of Commerce, which describes itself as "many people pooling together their ideas, talents and resources to promote the economic health and welfare of the local community," visit: www.westorangechamber.com.