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Culver Chamber honors Lions, Peseks, Kenney at annual awards banquet

December 18, 2013

Accepting awards from the Culver Chamber of Commerce at this year’s annual awards banquet last week are, from left, Don Freese and Susan Elizondo (on behalf of the Culver Lions Club, Lifetime Achievement Award recipients), Jeff Kenney (Volunteer of the Year), and Tammy and George Pesek (Businesspeople of the Year). At right is Chamber president Tony Sellers, who presented the awards.

The night of the Culver Chamber of Commerce's annual awards banquet was unseasonably warm, an appropriate parallel to the festivities inside the Corndance Cafe on Main Street last Tuesday, where the Chamber lauded recipients of its Volunteer of the Year, Businessperson of the Year, and Lifetime Achievement Awards.

The Culver Lions Club, the longest-lived service organization in the community (seven decades into its existence) received the Lifetime Achievement award, which was accepted by president Don Freese, who pointed to the club's motto, "We Serve and Serve and Serve” as a summation of its past and present work in the Culver community.

In introducing the award, Chamber president Tony Sellers noted that Culver's Lions "flip pancakes, fry hamburgers, boil corn, pick up flea market items," stand on street corners during White Cane Days, and sell fruit, all with proceeds "used to assist the Culver community and surrounding area, as well as finance the Indiana and International Lions sight, hearing and cancer projects," with the sole exception of funds channeled to maintenance costs associated with the upkeep of the historic Vandalia depot on Lake Shore Drive.

The depot, in fact, was in decay by the early 1980s and was saved and restored by the club shortly thereafter. It has since becomes, said Sellers, "a landmark building, a facility used by the community, a piece of nostalgia for a growing community along the lake-front and finally, and the home for the Culver Lions Club."

Among Lions projects benefiting the community and Indiana Lions are Liberty Day (when 8th and 11th graders at Culver Community Schools receive a copy of the U.S. Constitution, and a political figure addresses the group), the chili supper joint venture with the Culver Council of Churches in support of the Culver food pantry; the Culver Comm. High School senior awards banquet and scholarship; the “Paw for Life” Relay for Life team; the annual back pack project for community school students; semi-regular support of the CCHS choir trips to Ball State, the CCHS BPA (Business Professionals of America) Indiana and national events; Lake Max Triathlon volunteers; assistance to CCHS students on the Mexican mission trip with Culver Academies students; local team sports; 3rd grade dictionary project Culver youth Halloween and Christmas parties (the latter in conjunction with the VFW and Culver fire department); and Indiana Lions Projects including cancer control, eye and tissue bank, speech and hearing, the School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, and leader dogs.

"As illustrated," said Sellers, "the Lions club fulfills its motto everyday with their service to our community. We are grateful for their never-ending volunteering, service to others, and presence in this community we love so much"

Freese said he accepted the award on behalf not only of current Lions in attendance and those unable to attend, but those who have "passed on" before as well.

"When I first joined (the club), they said, 'We serve, and serve, and serve,' and I thought they were kidding," quipped Freese, who pointed to the club's near-constant and tireless efforts in the community.

Recognized as Businesspeople of the Year were George and Tammy Pesek, owners of the Corndance Cafe and Evil Czech Brewery in Culver.

Pesek, born in Czechoslovakia, spent his early years growing up "under an oppressive Communist regime," explained Sellers. He eventually defected, attending the Black Forest Culinary Academy in Baden Baden, Germany, before coming to the United States, where he began his career as a sous chef at Chez Louis in St. Louis. Pesek then opened Whitey Herzog’s Café, which led him to Chicago, where he worked at the well-known Ditka’s Steak House. Two years later, he went to Italy, "mastering the techniques and ingredients involved in classic Italian cuisine," before moving to the Napa Valley in California, where his daughter Olivia was born. Returning to Chicago, Pesek opened Riva on Navy Pier, and began working for the Phil Stefani Restaurant Group.

There he "met a Chicago resident who loved his food, and just happened to be married to the President of the United States," added Sellers, noting George Pesek "counts among his career highlights catering Hillary Clinton’s 50th birthday party, her high school reunion, and serving President and Mrs. Clinton many times over the years."
After rising to the forefront of the bustling Chicago culinary scene,

Pesek and family chose the town of Culver to open their own restaurant, the Corndance Café, which has been a part of the downtown area since 1999. They also purchased what would become the Evil Czech Brewery at Main and Davis Streets, after Pesek attended master brewing classes at UC Davis.

The couple's next venture, the Corndance Tavern on Grape Road in Mishawaka, Indiana, competed against nationally known chain restaurants, and gave Mishawaka "a taste of fresh local food that the Corndance brand has become famous for," said Sellers.

Demand for the craft beers produced by the brewery -- which opened in 2012 -- skyrocketed, prompting George and Tammy Pesek to expand the brewing operation into a larger Evil Czech Brewery on Main Street in Mishawaka.

The Peseks, Sellers related, built their home in Argos, Indiana, where they operate Rooster Hill Farm, a 50-acre bison ranch on which the couple and their son Nick and daughter Olivia have all spent time working and tending to the bison themselves, doing everything from administering vaccinations and processing the bison for use in their family of restaurants.

"To this day, Chef George Pesek continues to seek new challenges, acquire new knowledge, and drive himself to be a better chef," Sellers said, "while exposing his guests to new and exciting food and spirits done in a way that is healthier, fresher, and above all, local.

"Forward-thinking, innovative, creative, and fresh, Culver is incredibly fortunate to have two of their businesses in our little town," concluded Sellers.

George Pesek, accepting the award, emphasized the role his wife has played in the operation and added, "In spite of (the) rumors, we're not leaving Culver!"

Also recognized was Volunteer of the Year Jeff Kenney, editor of the Culver Citizen newspaper and curator at the Culver Academies museum.

Noting he grew up in Culver "hearing stories from his mother about its history and about pioneer family members who settled here in 1838," Sellers said Kenney wasn't initially aware of the impact his local childhood had on him until he left the community, attending Indiana University Bloomington and South Bend and living in various places.

"It wasn't until the birth of his first daughter, Cecilia, that (Kenney) decided he wanted to give her, and future children, the opportunity to have what he realized was a truly wonderful childhood growing up in a community that was a little bit Mayberry, but with elements of arts, culture, history, and natural beauty," Sellers continued.

Kenney's wife Beth agreed, and the two "have since offered the same opportunity to children Peter, Esme', Felicity, Becket, and soon baby Kateri. Knowing the importance of populating Culver with children, Jeff and Beth Kenney have tried to do their part, and Jeff adds that without Beth he'd probably be living in a home-made lean-to in the Indian trails," said Sellers with a smile.

Instead, the family is active at St. Mary of the Lake Catholic Church, where Jeff's volunteering to teach in various roles is also possible "100 percent due to Beth's support and sacrifice," he added.
Kenney also facilitated speakers and cultural programs at the Culver Public Library for several years during which he began collecting information and photos towards a small repository of Culver historical items.

"Through the work of the Antiquarian and Historical Society of Culver, on whose board he has served for eight years," Sellers said, "this grew into Culver's first ongoing museum, which today is preparing to reopen at a new location alongside a Culver visitor's center."

Along the way, Kenney presented a number of programs on Culver history, also working under mentor and Culver Academies historian Bob Hartman around seven years ago, eventually becoming curator of the then-newly opened Culver Academies museum in 2009.

"In 2007," Sellers said, "his childhood employment as a Culver paper boy blossomed into his role as editor of the Culver Citizen newspaper, a position in which he says he continues to voluntarily assist Culver residents in staving off boredom by giving them typos to search for each week. He also values the contribution his position facilitates towards Culver's bird cages and recycling bins."

Sellers added Kenney is "integral in Culver's success and growth (and) fair, honest, kind, and giving."

The Chamber also voted in its 2014 slate of officers and budget, with Sellers beginning his second term as president, Sue McInturff as vice president, Ben Schaller as treasurer, and Brandy Poll as secretary.

Board members Cheryl Rhodes, Larry and Dawn Brockey, Dick Brantingham, and Greg Fassett were joined by new members Mark Damore Jr. and Michelle Allyn, who replaced retiring board members Ron May and Rick Tompos, who Sellers thanked Sellers also thanked the Corndance Cafe for its "great setup" for the evening's festivities, adding that "a few people have done a lot of things in this town...Culver is a great place to be," noting the community has "grown to be a place we didn't think it would be.

"People who are willing to give back is what makes Culver such a great community," Sellers added.

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