WEST ORANGE, NJ — Five West Orange firemen who saved a teen from near death earlier this year were among the honorees at the 20th Annual Community Awards dinner hosted by the West Orange Chamber of Commerce (WOCC) on Wednesday night at the Wilshire Grand Hotel, the 2018 Business of the Year.
“I am very grateful for what you did,” said Evan Ferranto, the 17-year-old West Orange resident who went into cardiac arrest in January after being shocked while using electricity to burn wood for an art project. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you guys.”
The crowd of more than 150 attendees rose to its feet as plaques were awarded to the 2018 Firefighters of the Year: West Orange Fire Captain George Hesse, Acting Captain Matthew Keenan and firefighters Patrick McGovern, Craig Vanderhoof and Nicholas Manzella.
“Individual accomplishment is often overshadowed by the crew’s work,” said Fire Chief Anthony Vecchio, adding that there was no easy way to pick just one firefighter for the award because more often than not, it’s a group working together.
According to WOCC Executive Director Jessica Marrone Parkes, the annual dinner is an opportunity for the WOCC to honor exemplary service to the West Orange community.
“We greatly appreciate the community, our members, our speakers and our generous sponsors who come together to celebrate our honorees each year,” she said. “This year, we had near-record attendance and that is a testament to the growth of our town and the support we have in West Orange from businesses and citizens.”
Township Mayor Robert Parisi spoke about the changes in society and why events like the awards dinner are important for communities.
“We’ve come to a place in society where police are being vilified more often than honored; where firefighters and first responders are being second-guessed; where teachers are being seen as more of a problem than part of a solution,” said Parisi. “We can’t control what fact, or interpretation of facts, the media covers. And we can’t control what becomes popular on social media. None of us can control the hearts and minds of others. But as a community, in rooms just like this, we can make the decision to honor our police officers, make the decision to respect our firefighters and we can make the decision to revere our teachers.”
Also celebrated Wednesday night was Educator of the Year Gerard “Gary” Franck, a fifth-grade teacher with more than 25 years at St. Cloud Elementary school, whom a colleague loving referred to as “Definitely the oldest kid in fifth grade.”
Franck was chosen for the award for many reasons, according to West Orange Public Schools Superintendent Jeff Rutzky, but one of the most poignant reasons is that Franck is known for creating a sense of community for his students.
“He creates a sense of belonging,” Rutzky said. “There’s importance in that.”
Two West Orange police officers, Officer Jeffrey James and Detective Sebastian deLeon, were honored for volunteering to go to Puerto Rico for two weeks following the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. The pair was selected from the pool of volunteers to travel to the island as part of a larger, statewide effort.
“I have been an annual visitor to Puerto Rico for the past 17 years,” deLeon said. “To see an island become a disaster zone was humbling.”
Receiving the Business of the Year award was The Wilshire Grand Hotel, where the event was held.
Over the years The Wilshire has been a steadfast contributor and support to the community, said WOCC member and Township Councilwoman Susan McCartney, who presented the award to Edward Reagoso, the hotel’s general manager.
“It is truly an honor to share a stage with policemen, firefighters and an educator,” Reagoso said. “We couldn’t do any of this without our staff.”
Business in West Orange is booming and millions of visitors are coming to West Orange each year.
Essex County Chief of Staff Phil Alagia, keynote speaker for the WOCC event, noted that there were nearly 2 million visitors last year to the South Mountain Recreation complex that houses the Turtle Back Zoo and the Cody Arena.
“We are bringing millions and millions of visitors to West Orange,” Alagia said. “I can’t even begin to calculate how much that must help with the gas stations, convenience stores and business.”
Marrone Parkes thanked the committee members, the attendees and the sponsors, which included: Bederson LLP, Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr., FMBA Local 28 , Saint Barnabas Medical Center, Superior Officers Association Local 228, The Wilshire Grand Hotel, The Wilshire Grand Caterers,Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation, Trenk DiPasquale Law Firm, West Orange PBA, JAG Physical Therapy, Mayor Robert Parisi, Mark & Julie's Homemade Ice Cream, Regal Bank, The West Orange Chronicle and TAPinto West Orange and keynote speaker Essex County Chief of Staff Philip B. Alagia.