For Keri Perot Vance and Bill Morris, service to their community is at the heart of everything they do — and they make time to give back even though both have demanding jobs.

It’s for that reason they were honored at Thursday’s Panola County Chamber of Commerce Banquet as Citizen of the Year and Employee of the Year, respectively.

In praising Perot Vance’s efforts, Sharon Roberson-Jones cited “a long list, consisting of thousands of hours of hard work, and she has done this while also running her own business and raising a family.”

“She was not born here, but as the saying goes she got here as quickly as she could – and since her arrival, she has made Carthage and Panola County her home,” Roberson-Jones said. “She’s working to make our community a home for everyone else as well, whether that’s by volunteering her time with civic improvement projects like Clean-Up Panola County Day or working with our elected officials to address community concerns or by making sure whoever she meets knows that they can do great things in Panola County if they give it a chance.

“To her, we say thank you for giving so much of your time and effort into making Panola County a great place to live,” Roberson-Jones later added.

The chamber hosted its 76th annual banquet at the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame, bringing a jazz trio for entertainment while guests enjoyed a surf and turf dinner catered by Sodexo.

The annual event is both a place for the chamber to look back on its accomplishments from the past year, honor its members and celebrate the people in Panola County who make a difference.

This year’s awards were given to:

  • Main Street Shining Star Chase Dawson
  • Main Street Rising Star Luke Horton
  • Ambassador of the Year Rene Nolen
  • Employee of the Year Bill Morris
  • Citizen of the Year Keri Perot Vance

Chairman John Ray also recognized immediate past Chairman David Everett for his two years of service — a longer-than-usual term thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“David Everett took over the chairmanship just before the pandemic began,” he’s said. “David, I think you were chair for a few months and then all the meetings stopped. Since this was a very unusual and shortened year, David agreed to serve a second year as chair, and I have had the privilege of working with him as a member of the executive committee. His leadership has been invaluable during this time. He has led with a steady hand and the great interest in moving the chamber forward.”

In her new role as executive director of the chamber, Perot Vance said they are moving into 2022 with a strong foundation. She also thanked Tommie Ritter Smith for her many years of leadership at the chamber.

“A leadership transition is always a bit a bit of a challenge and I’m thankful for those who invested their time and expertise into serving our board of directors and executive board,” Perot Vance said. “We have so many to thank for making this transition a little bit smoother.”

Among the many tasks the chamber has been working on, they’ve set short-term and long-term goals, they are revising their mission and vision statements, and they are building a new website. The chamber also saw a 6.9 percent increase in membership in the first quarter of the year.

Perot Vance also took the time to thank the chamber’s ambassadors for volunteering their time, saying that is what powers the chamber and keeps it going.

To the community, Perot Vance said the chamber is working for you.

“Every day we are passionate about economic growth,” she said. “We are invested in Panola County’s future, and I encourage you to stop by, challenge us, partner with us, ask questions, and let’s talk about what makes Panola County the best place to live, learn, start a business, raise a family and retire.”

Perot Vance also made one more important announcement: The official name of their new cat. Names were sent in by Watchman readers, and the chamber’s board voted: Chester was the winning name.

Carthage Main Street Manager Cindy Deloney noted the fact that Carthage has been a state and nationally accredited Main Street program for 20 years before honoring two people who have been actively involved in downtown events and planning.

Chase Dawson, most known for his work helping to preserve and promote the historic Esquire Theater as part of the Country Music Hayride, was described by Deloney as someone who, if he’s not standing right beside her, he’s “a phone call away.”

“He never seems to be put out with me,” she said. “He always just talks me through it or he gets to me as fast as he can. He shares my love for historic downtown buildings, especially the Esquire theater, and he has gone above and beyond to make sure the building just doesn’t just exist, it thrives.”

Deloney also praised Luke Horton, chairman of the Main Street Youth Advisory Council. Horton, in his worth with the YAC, has helped organize things like the Mainstreet Film Festival and summer youth camps.

2020 Employee of the Year Olen English helped honor Morris, the 2021 Employee of the Year. Morris, who grew up in Carthage, joined the U.S. Army after graduation and served in Operation Desert Storm. He returned to Panola County after his military career ended and now works as the county’s veterans service officer.

“He knew that was where he was needed and wanted to be in a position serving local veterans,” English said. “It was a complex undertaking helping veterans obtain eligible benefits from the Veterans Administration, but he wanted it — not only to be veterans seeking him out, but he often often seeks them out asking what he as their Veteran Service Officer can do to help them.”

Morris “has a servant’s heart for our veterans,” English said.

He “serves our country, our taxpayers dutifully with commitment, sensitivity, counseling and some sprinkles of humor along the way,” English said. “As a trustworthy employee at the Panola County courthouse, and therefore Panola County, he makes a significant difference because he goes above and beyond expectations.”

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Regional Editor

Meredith Shamburger oversees newspapers in Carthage, KIlgore and Marshall. A Carthage native, she has been with M.Roberts Media since 2016. Before joining the staff, she served as a reporter with the Dallas Morning News.