Gaynell Lawson was named the recipient of the fourth annual Blount County Athena Leadership Award at the banquet held Thursday at the Clayton Center for the Arts on the Maryville College campus. Lawson, president and CEO of CBBC, was chosen for the honor by an anonymous panel of judges, using a point system developed by Athena International in recognizing women for using strength, courage, wisdom and enlightenment to make outstanding contributions to the community. In Blount County, the Athena program is sponsored by The Daily Times, Bristol and Bragg Jewelers and the Clayton Center for the Arts and is sanctioned by Athena International.

As the cheers and applause faded, Lawson said, “Thank you all so very much. Are we not the most fortunate people? Look where we are ... I am so honored and so humbled. This place where I was born and where many of you chose to live has been so accepting, so encouraging and has helped so many young women and young men achieve their goals. Thank you for the part you’ve played in that, and thank you for giving me this award, which I accept for all the women who try very hard.”

Prior to the awards ceremony, Lawson praised each of the nominees, saying, “This is a great group of ladies who contribute. They don’t just exist — they actively contribute every day. They look for a way to do something.”

Pistol Creek Catch of the Day provided music. Dinner was catered by Sullivan’s. Emcees were Lisa Skinner, vice president of market strategy at Fee/Headrick Family Entertainment Group, and State Sen. Doug Overbey. Opening remarks were by Daily Times Publisher Carl Esposito, with special thanks to Pistol Creek Catch of the Day, Sullivan’s, the Clayton Center for the Arts, NovaCopy, Starr Bragg and Evelyn Sandlin, Daily Times advertising director, for making the event possible. The invocation was given by Blount County Mayor Ed Mitchell, who asked for a moment of silence to remember the family of Jean Lambert, another community servant who passed away earlier in the week.

Wealth of talent

In addition to Lawson, Blount County 2016 finalists included Phyllis Crisp, register of deeds, Blount County government; Sandra Davis, retired president/CEO, United Way of Blount County; Michelle Hankes, executive director, American Red Cross of East Tennessee; Virginia Hardwick, market development manager, Staffing Solutions; Connie Huffman, assistant administrator, Blount Memorial Hospital; Regina Jennings, senior vice president, Pinnacle Financial Partners; Julie Bramblett Rochelle, retired educator; Stacey Wilner, director of choral activities, Maryville College; and Pam Wolf, founder and CEO, Harmony Family Center.

Blount’s previous Athena winners Joy Bishop, Sharon Hannum and Brenda Sellers attended as well as several past nominees. Before the awards presentation, the women shared their thoughts on being an Athena.

As Blount County’s first honoree, Bishop said, “I was so proud to have been selected for Athena. It was one of the best and sweetest things that has happened to me. And from that, each year, with these new women who have been nominated, we know each other, we talk, we help each other. We’re kind of a sisterhood. If we need a little help, we can just call on another Athena person.

“There are some great candidates tonight, and I just can’t wait to see who will be named. But you know what, it’s just the same as if everybody had been selected — so many different talents tonight.”

Hannum said, “This is one, if not the only one, in East Tennessee that honors women. There are awards that honor community members, certain specific topics, but women in leadership only — this is one of a kind. I take it as an honor to be included in the number. And there are some great ladies nominated this year.

“Sometimes these end up being a popularity contest, but that’s not what this is about at all. It’s all about leadership and showing up consistently whether it’s on the job, in the community or at home. Leadership is not something you do, it’s something you are.”

Sellers said, “I don’t think people realize how important the Athena is. I didn’t realize it was an international award in eight different countries. Just to be nominated is an honor in itself.”

Accomplishments

According to information provided by her nominator, Lawson

  1. Led CBBC to donate $40,000 to TN Achieves in celebration of the bank’s 40th anniversary in 2013. This donation will allow 40 students to attend community or technical college;
  2. Serves as personal mentor for five Pellissippi State Community College students;
  3. Serves on the Advisory Board of Legal Aid of East Tennessee;
  4. Initiated CBBC’s High School Honors Banquet in 1982. This program has recognized local students for more than 30 years, and has received a Tennessee State Board of Education Commendation. In 2015, CBBC began partnering with The Daily Times Academic Banquet to award six scholarships for vocational excellence, achievement in fine arts and for community service;
  5. Initiated after-school classes through the Maryville Housing Authority to provide tutors and materials for students in MHA residences;
  6. Helped secure funding for Habitat for Humanity as part of the first Business Community Build in 2014, with most of the bank’s associates participating in the building. CBBC participated in this program again in 2015;
  7. Led in CBBC’s sponsorship of the Clayton Center for the Arts for the 2015 season;
  8. Active for many years with Blount Count United Way, including service on the Board of Directors and as treasurer;
  9. Graduate of Leadership Blount in 1995;
  10. Served on the Board of Directors of the Blount County Chapter of the American Red Cross as treasurer;
  11. Served on Board of Directors of Blount County Chamber of Commerce as vice president for membership;
  12. Served on committee for Martin Luther King Celebration;
  13. Participated in several Maryville College Community Fund Drives;
  14. Past member and president of Maryville-Alcoa Civitan, Maryville Rotary and Foothills Striders;
  15. Served as finance chair and treasurer for Peck’s Memorial United Methodist Church;
  16. Longtime volunteer with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and active in the Great Smoky Mountains Association.

Lawson, a Blount County native, is a graduate of Friendsville High School and Maryville College. She also graduated from the Tennessee School of Banking and the School for Bank Administration at the University of Wisconsin.

She began her career with CBBC before the bank even opened its doors in September 1973, having been hired as the bookkeeper. She spent most of the next four decades as the bank’s chief financial officer, managing the bank’s balance sheet, financial and regularity reporting, compliance and operation. In 2007, she became a member of the Board of Director of CBBC and its holding company, Twin City Financial Services Inc., and in June 2013 was named to her current role as president and CEO.

In addition to adding flavor and texture to community life, Lawson is an accomplished cook. The nominator said, “I asked several co-workers to describe Gaynell in one word, and just like cooking takes ingredients to make a dish, Gaynell’s ‘ingredients’ contribute to her being the success she is today. The recipe of Gaynell consists that she is: Intelligent, Leader, Admirable, Strong, Go-getter, Sincere, Compassionate, mixed in with Class, Friend, Fashionable, Fun and Silly.

“All of these ingredients have led to the wonderful spirit of who Gaynell is. One who is determined to make the most out of life! Personally, I love her laugh the most!”

Lawson and her husband, Daniel J. Lawson, have three daughters, Jennifer Moore, Julia Lawson and Mindy Stooksbury, and grandchildren Ian Murphy and Ava Stooksbury.

Life columnist

Linda Braden Albert worked as a feature writer and editor at The Daily Times. She is now the editor of Horizon Magazine and a columnist.

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