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Follansbee Chamber of Commerce to honor those who make a difference

FOLLANSBEE — The Follansbee Chamber of Commerce will be holding its bi-annual dinner Oct. 16 at St. Francis Center to recognize both businesses and people who make a difference in the community.

Chamber Chairwoman Debbie Puskarich said the honorees are picked by nominations from local residents.

“People stopped in my office and mentioned these names,” Puskarich said. “So this is from the community.”

This year, the chamber will be honoring five local businesses and their owners, someone from the performing arts, an educator and an outstanding citizen as chosen by the chamber.

The honorees include:

Local Business

Lyle’s Auto of Follansbee has been with the community since 1987 when owner David Lyle obtained a license to sell cars.

A native of Follansbee and a graduate of Brooke High School, Lyle is appreciative of all the experiences and opportunities the small town has to offer.

“Originally, I worked at a bank, but I was looking to get out on my own,” said Lyle.

Fortunately, Lyle did get out on his own when, at the age of 23, he bought his first business — a gas station.

“It could have been anything, though,” joked Lyle.

“I didn’t know what I wanted, only that I wanted to be self-employed.”

In 1991, after obtaining his license to sell cars four years earlier, Lyle leased the original location of Lyle’s Auto on W.Va. state Route 2. However, as his success began to grow, so did the inventory.

In 2001, Lyle’s Auto opened the doors at its current location — 1451 Main St., Follansbee.

“I’m really blessed to work in a small community like Follansbee,” Lyle said.

Lyle has been married to his wife, Lori, for 40 years. The couple have two children, Jessica, a school teacher, and Bryan, a sales purchasing consultant at the family business.

Bryan began working for Lyle’s Auto at the yound age of 14.

“It’s a good possibility he’ll take over,” said Lyle. “That is if I ever decided to quit.”

Local Business

Wilkin Flower Shop started in 1952 and has since had a successful run in the city of Wellsburg.

Born and raised in Jefferson County, Susan Freshour began working at the shop in 1979. However, her passion for retail took her to the Pittsburgh Art Institute to study retail and residential planning.

Freshour graduated in 1990, when, in the same year, she had a vision of her owning her own shop.

That vision came to fruition in 1996 when Freshour bought Wilkin Flower Shop from the Vincent family.

“Wilkin Flower Shop is what it has always been, and I wasn’t going to change it,” said Freshour. “But I knew I needed something in this line of work.”

In 2015, Freshour moved the shop from its original location in the Town Square to where it is now at 724 Charles St., Follansbee.

“We needed a better location,” noted Freshour. “We have a lot more walk-in traffic now.”

Freshour appreciates her three employees — Brenda Taylor, Janet Scenna and Poke Beall.

“They are a good crew,” said Freshour. “A crew you can go on vacation and leave.”

Wilkin Flower Shop has been named Best Florist on numerous occasions, including in October 2018.

Local Business

The creativity and connectivity are special parts of George Kondik’s job. As owner of PS Marketing, Kondik enjoys what he does.

“We print everything on anything and anything on everything,” Kondik said.

Established in 1975, Kondik acquired PS Marketing in 1995 from Len Shaw and has since expanded the company from serving not just the Tri-State Area.

“We have customers as far as South Carolina,” said Kondik. “We pride ourselves on delivering quality merchandise at very competitive pricing.”

Kondik said if a company has an idea, PS Marketing can make it a reality.

“It is so rewarding when we see the end results,” Kondik added.

Like with serving customers, Kondik and his staff also enjoy serving the community.

Kondik has been on the Weirton Area Chamber of Commerce Board for three years, as well as a member of the Steubenville, Follansbee and Pittsburgh Airport Area chambers.

“The organizations are very business oriented in creating new ideas for our local communities,” Kondik said.

Kondik also is a member of the Weirton Rotary, Weirton Salvation Army and West Virginia Northern Community College Foundation.

In addition, Kondik has severed one term as mayor of Weirton and four terms as a councilman for the city.

“I appreciate the opportunities in serving our customers and our involvement with the Tri-State Area chambers,” noted Kondik.

Local Business

Silvestre Merenda, owner and operator of Sil’s Small Engine Repair Shop, was first drawn to the “sounds of the engine” while sitting in his grade school listing to Fiat cars and Vespa motor scooters zip through the streets of Sant’Angelo di Brolo in Sicily, Italy.

With the good fortune of having a teacher who recognized Merenda’s love of cars and a father who encouraged his children to chase their passions, Merenda enrolled in mechanic school the very next year at the young age of 12.

He started by cleaning parts and keenly watching the work of his mentors. Slowly he began building a reputation as one of Brolo’s finest young mechanics. Merenda was living his dream and “serving his family, friends and community” with his talents.

As tough economic times hit Sicily in the 1960s, Silvestre made what he called “the ultimate sacrifice” and left his homeland in order to open up opportunities for the family and friends he left behind.

With a suitcase filled with clothes and a heart filled with determination, Merenda left Sicily in 1966 and arrived in New York City. Within a few weeks, he found himself in West Virginia searching for work within the booming steel industry.

Speaking no English at all, Merenda’s “resume” included only the zeal in his eyes and ability to fix anything.

Given an opportunity by Starvaggi Industries to work on big diesel equipment, Merenda quickly proved his worth and planted roots in Weirton.

Within a few years, he would meet the love of his life, Josephine Marie Cararra. Silvestre and Josephine married in 1969 and raised three children. Today, they have six grandchildren with a seventh on the way.

With a life centered on “Jesus, family, friends, a huge garden, homemade everything and a heartfelt desire to always give to others,” the couple opened Sil’s Small Engine Repair Shop in 1989.

Since then, the shop, located at 123 Randall Ave., Follansbee, has served thousands of customers — and fresh biscottis. The shop has kept the community “Running,” according to the couple’s son Ross Merenda.

“Whether tractors, lawn mowers, chain saws, weed eaters, rototillers, log splitters, snow blowers, leaf blowers, generators, motorcycles, go-karts, cars or trucks with the most minor to the most impossible of problems, the shop to this day maintains its perfect 100-percent track record of troubleshooting and fixing it all,” Ross Merenda said. “But if you ask customers, all will say the best fixes have been the love and kindness shown by Silvestre and Josephine. With the shop now in its 30th year, the ‘sounds of the engine’ continue to draw (my father) to the shop three days a week still serving the community and making it all sound just right.”

Local Business

When Jerry Simpson finds something he likes, he sticks with it. The owner of Borden Office Supplies at 141 N Fifth St., Steubenville, said that working for Borden is the only job he has ever had.

Simpson graduated from West Virginia University in 1981 and got a job as a salesman at the venerable office supply store and never left.

“This was really my first job out of college,” he said. “I pursued it and moved up the ladder. I love what I do and always have. Most people retire from here. It’s a good place to work.”

Simpson became the owner of the store a little more than 15 years ago and currently has 25 employees, including his son J.D. who he hopes will one day take over the store.

Simpson said the key to Borden’s success is offering competitive prices and services.

“We are second to none when it comes to service,” Simpson said.

The store, which has been in business since 1929, sells office supplies, furniture and machines. They also offer full-service calls out of the building, he said.

Simpson said the company is now offering cleaning supplies.

“Our newest addition is janitorial supplies,” he said. “All you need in one store. (We are) a one-stop shop.”

Simpson also decided the Ohio Valley was the place for him. He currently lives in Follansbee and is a graduate of Brooke High School.

“I enjoy the area,” he said. “I wanted to stay here.”

Simpson also decided on his life partner at an early age. He met his wife, Pam, in grade school and never swayed.

“I am a big fan of ‘If it’s not broke, don’t fix it,'” he said.

In addition to J.D., the couple have a daughter, Jenna.

Local Artist

Local musician and lead of the Ron Retzer Trio, Ron Retzer said he can’t remember a time when music was not a part of his life.

“I have been doing this since I was born,” he said laughing.

While not since he was born, per se, Retzer said his first instrument was the accordion.

“I started playing it when I was 8,” he said. “That was a long time ago.”

Retzer has moved on from the accordion days, though. He and his fellow members of the Ron Retzer Trio — Jennifer Galowina and Bob Wolfe — played at the White House on Dec. 20 last year.

Galowina sent some videos of the trio’s annual Christmas show at the Capitol Theatre in Wheeling to the White House staff, and they liked what they saw.

Galowina said up until the moment they were walking in the White House, Retzer was skeptical.

“He didn’t believe it was true until we were actually there,” she said.

“I didn’t believe it,” Retzer confessed. “Jennifer said (we were going to play) and I was like, ‘Yeah. Right.'”

“I didn’t believe it until we were walking through security and then I had to apologize to Jennifer,” he laughed. “That was the hardest thing I have ever had to do.”

The surprises for Retzer were just beginning though. He said he had seen on line the 1938 Steinway piano gifted to Franklin D. Roosevelt from Joseph Steinway himself and designed by Eric Gugler.

He told Wolfe and Galowina, “They will never let me play that.”

Again Retzer was surprised. This was the exact piano they asked him to play. Retzer was excited to say the least.

“He played the boogie-woogie on the White House piano,” Galowina said.

There also was a sign next to the piano introducing the group as “The Ron Retzer Trio — American Treasure.”

Once they started playing, the group said they lost themselves in the music as usual.

“Once we started it was like any other gig,” Retzer said. “People would stop and sing or clap along.”

In addition to the trio, Retzer is a member of the 1170 Band that served as the house band for Jamboree in the Hills.

Retzer said all his bands and recording sessions are important, but right now is his favorite time.

“This has been my favorite,” he said of his trio who formed in 2014. “My favorite thing is playing live.”

Teacher of the Year

Ede Ashworth started her teaching career in 1973, but she has been a student all her life, and it is that passion for loving that made the Follansbee Chamber of Commerce pick her as its Teacher of The Year.

“I have traveled all over,” Ashworth said. “It gave me so much more to share with my students. There is so much to see and so much more to learn, and I was bringing that back to my students.”

Ashworth grew up in Portsmouth, Ohio, were she graduated from Portsmouth East High School in 1969. After high school, she continued her studies at Marshall University, where she got her bachelor of arts degree in 1973, and at the University of Toledo where she got her masters of arts degree 1977.

During that time she also studied abroad in Madrid, Spain, was a Fulbright Hayes Grant winner in 1976 for the American Academy at Rome. She later was a student the American School at Athens, Greece, and accompanied three other Brooke County educators to Japan for the Japan In The Schools Project.

Ashworth said she was recruited to come to Brooke County in 1973.

“They had job fairs for teachers back then,” she said. “My original plan was to come for a few years, but I loved the area and just stayed. I was made welcome and a part of the community. This was my first and last job. I was there for 41 years.”

Ashworth was a classics major in college and taught Spanish and Latin at the high school, where she sponsored both the Latin and Spanish clubs. She also served as the chair of the Foreign Language Department and co-sponsored the Brooke High Tutoring Program.

During her time at the school, the athletic department approached her about becoming the academic adviser to the football team.

“We wanted them to not just be eligible to play, but to be academically superior,” she said.

And even though Ashworth promised herself that once she completed her formal education she would never do another college education, she found herself as the adviser to many college-bound students.

“I helped with the college applications,” she said. “We had quite a few be successful — Ivy League schools, West Virginia University, Marshall, Bethany …”

Since retirement, Ashworth said it is the students she misses the most.

“I miss the people I worked with, my colleagues and the staff — but it’s the students that stand out the most,” she said. “Not just one, but all of them. I taught them, but I learned from them as well. My greatest joy is seeing them be successful in their chosen field. You don’t have to be a doctor to be a success.”

Since retiring, Ashworth has continued to travel, learn and educate. She is a part of the P.E.O., a philanthropic organization for women.

The group’s motto is to be a “philanthropic organization where women celebrate the advancement of women; educate women through scholarships, grants, awards, loans and stewardship of Cottey College; and motivate women to achieve their highest aspirations.”

“It’s a new passion for me,” she said. “We support women going back to school for any reason. We offer scholarships and support. P.E.O even owns a four-year college.”

Always the teacher and the student, Ashworth said she is always learning new things with the group.

“We have guest speakers to keep learning yourself,” she said.

Ashworth also has been named the West Virginia Foreign Language Teachers Association’s teacher of the year for 1987-88; one of the first six West Virginia honorees for the Milken Family Foundation awards; and was named the Brooke County and West Virginia Teacher of the Year in 2000.

Citizen of the Year

Eric Fithyan lives by a motto of, “Serving others the way I want to be served.”

As owner of Chambers and James Funeral Homes since 2011, Fithyan dedicates himself and his businesses to the community and those who have served by hosting events such as the Sweaters for Veterans, Operation Valentine and serving as the chair of the Wellsburg Christmas Parade.

Sweaters for Veterans provides warm-weather clothing for active and retired military personnel. Operation Valentine does the same, but with cards and warm wishes for the holiday.

He said the project collected more than 1,000 valentines last year to be sent to those serving overseas.

Fithyan said his goal as a local business owner; as member of the Follansbee Chamber of Commerce; as chairman of the 100th West Virginia District Convention of Kiwanis and current district president for the club; and with being part of various other organizations, is to keep the community together and successful.

“I’ve always just had a service background,” said Fithyan. “We do this to make our community better. This is our hometown. This is what keeps things moving forward.”

This year, the staff of Chambers and James Funeral Homes hosted the first Beacon Award Ceremony.

Chambers and James Funeral Homes reached out to approximately 15 nursing and hospice homes and requested each facility nominate a person they felt deserved to be recognized based on their service, lending a helping hand and making someone’s life better.

Fithyan worked in hospice himself before going into his current business.

“Hospice requires an extremely personal touch,” he said. “It is very healing (to have someone care for you). Over the years, we at Chambers and James received some awards that kept our momentum going. We wanted to spread that energy.”

Another new program started by Fithyan as event chair of the Follansbee Chamber was the Monday Music Madness concerts held during the summer.

“It was a really good way to boost morale in our city,” Fithyan said.

Fithyan said the programs he takes on showcase what his funeral homes are capable of, with the commitment and compassion of his staff toward those they serve.

“I wanted to work in funeral service since I was a little kid,” he said. “The chance to take a tragic situation and manipulate it into a celebration of life. This is not a job that I work 9-to-5. I have a calling for this. It was this or be a meteorologist (as a child).”

Fithyan said he is honored to have been chosen as Citizen of the Year.

“We couldn’t do what we do without the people we serve,” he said. “I was just shocked (to be chosen). You hear about business revitalization, but there is also a need for revitalization of the heart.”

Guest Speaker

When a friend of his wife, Alecia, mentioned a possible job for Pat Ford in Weirton, he had never heard of the city only 30 miles west of his then-home in Pittsburgh. His wife, who is a graduate of Bethany College, told him to check it out.

“She said it’s closer to the Pittsburgh International Airport than we live now, and I said ‘no way,'” he said. “Then I got in the car and took a drive and there it was, and on the other side was the city of Steubenville.”

Ford, who was the executive director at Business Development Corp. of the Northern Panhandle of West Virginia, is glad he made that drive. He previously served under three mayors in Pittsburgh as the executive director of the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh before moving to the area, but once he moved to the area he knew that little city he never heard of was the place and job for him.

“This is the most rewarding job opportunity in my professional career,” he said. “And I can say that with all honesty. I find myself growing here. The place, the people I work for, the community — everyone is just so gracious. There is no other word, they adopted me.”

Ford adopted Brooke and Hancock counties and surrounding areas as well.

Ford serves as the chairman of the board of governors for West Liberty University, serves on the board of the West Virginia Brownfields Assistance Center, is on the financial committee of Weirton Medical Center, is the former chairman of the Weirton United Way, served on the board of directors for the West Virginia Public Port Authority for five years, and has been the judge of many food competitions.

“One of my board of directors said to me, ‘I’ve worked here for 40 years and no one has asked me to judge a chili cook-off,'” Ford said with a laugh.

Ford said his position was about adapting the area’s strong points. He said he and his boss were thinking regionally, not just locally when it comes to the area. They are not about forgetting the past, but taking it and adapting it for the future.

“We are investing in the muscle memory of our work force and cleaning up our environment,” he said. “They have the vision to look at this old (steel mill sites) and see a future. The bones are strong. We shouldn’t turn our backs and let them die like so many (other towns) did. We need to breathe new life into them.”

Thanks to that vision, Ford said the BDC has gained favor with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, United States Economic Development Agency and several senators and congressmen.

Ford said thanks to their work, the area has received more than $44 million in grants and loans and attracted more than a half a billion dollars in economic growth.

“(It is showing people) this is an area to do business, an area to live and an area to invest in,” he said. “You can feel it when you drive down state Route 2 — not only seeing it with the shovels in the dirt, but you can feel it in the air.”

Ford and his wife made their home in Weirton. He has a bachelor and masters degree from the University of Virginia and an honorary doctorate from WLU.

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