The Chamber of Commerce's Citizen of the Year award is known in advance of the organization's annual dinner in February. So the real surprise comes in notifying the winner prior to the event. But when Chamber president and CEO Jim Maran tried to tell Barbara Howard last week, he had a tough time.
He left a message on her cellphone, another at work and a final one at home, all to no avail. Finally someone alerted Maran that Howard was right there in the Chamber building. So it was fitting that he had to pull Howard out of a Community Foundation meeting to inform her of the honor.
"I was so surprised," said Howard, who is president of Suzanna's Kitchen. "I was blown away. It's quite an honor."
And a deserving one for a person who is a fixture on various boards around the county. I've come to know Howard as part of the American Cancer Society's Leadership Council, but the Duluth resident is a member of so many boards she keeps her personal calendar more than filled.
"About once a month I'll get really stressed if I have more than one (meeting) in a day," she said. "(But) I love to be part of the community. I'm busy and I love it."
Howard was named the 2012 Philanthropist of the Year at the Chamber's Healthcare Excellence Awards earlier this month and is receiving the Chamber's highest award in large part because of her philanthropy in support of the Gwinnett Medical Center Foundation. A cancer survivor who lost her husband Henry to bladder cancer almost eight years ago, Howard is a major supporter of the county's medical community as well as the American Cancer Society.
"Barbara is truly one of a kind and a special individual to all who know her," said Bill Manson, market and development director for ACS and former head of the Gwinnett office.
Next year will mark the 40th anniversary of her and her husband's move to Gwinnett County. The county they came to was very different from the sprawling Gwinnett of today, but allowed the couple to get their philanthropic start at the bottom floor.
For instance, the Howards were instrumental along with two other couples in starting the first American Cancer Society Gala in 1975. Howard said when they moved from DeKalb County, their new neighborhood consisted of only 13 homes. But through the Cancer Society they branched off into other community service, each time making new friends and finding new organizations in need of support.
"That's how we began to meet people (from) all over the county," Howard said. "Through that I became more involved in a lot of other things. Before (the Cancer Society), I wouldn't even know where Snellville was. My goal one year was to find Snellville."
Since then she's found her way on to a plethora of boards. Howard is the chairman of Rainbow Village's capital campaign and serves on boards foreverything from the Norcross Ministry and the Hudgens Center for the Arts to the Aurora Theatre and the Community Foundation. She said it was never a conscious decision to be involved in so many things but more of a by-product of being involved and engaged in the community.
"We have a lot of ties here," Howard said. "(Being involved) is just the way we were, just the way we are. Gwinnett has been very good to us"
Howard won't officially receive her award until Feb. 1. But as we head into the holidays, her volunteer spirit is a good reminder of the importance of helping others.
Email Todd Cline at email@example.com. His column appears on Wednesdays.