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2010 Arnold Award winners announced
Chamber presents other honors at annual meeting
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When friends of Lee and Jerry Aldridge speak about the couple, listeners can hear the passion in their voices.

And when long-time friend Nonie Needham introduced the couple as co-recipients of the 2010 R.O. Arnold Award to an assembled crowd of friends, the response was a standing ovation.

After 45 years of service, Needham said there wasn't a more deserving winner of the county's prestigious lifetime service award than her good friends.

"How may we describe a lifetime of giving, when the givers are legends in their own time? Two names answer this question: Lee and Jerry Aldridge," Needham said. "Together, they have touched more lives in a very positive way, than we can even imagine. Beloved educators, parents of three, grandparents of five, church leaders, Scout leaders, civic volunteers and friends - probably to everyone in this hall.

"They are one of the defining reasons that make Newton County the splendid place we call home."

The Aldridge's received the award at the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce's annual meeting Thursday night. Their service is so well known and their friendship so widely spread, the couple was nominated for the award by four different people - Betty Bellairs, Wendell Crowe and Ed and Nonie Needham.

After the meeting, Lee said she couldn't put into words what the award meant to her.

"This is probably the first time in my life I was actually speechless," she said, in her familiar joking manner. "It's an unbelievable feeling."

Lee was born in Newton County as Mary Lee Costley. She met a young Jerry Aldridge when the two attended Young Harris College. The couple soon married and immediately embarked on a journey of community service that continues to span their lifetime.

After teaching for two years in Jerry's hometown of Blackshear, Ga., the family settled in Newton County. For 37 years Lee would teach science classes at Newton County High School, while Jerry would serve his 32-year career as a history teacher and then work his way up to become a principal at several different county schools.

In addition to teaching and school administration, the couple served in Georgia's 4-H Club for 30 years, becoming co-presidents. Lee was cheerleading coach, year book advisor and sponsor of the "Y" and science clubs. Jerry drove the cheerleader's bus to out-of-town games and was know for years as "the Voice of the Rams."

"Lee and Jerry were not just teachers. They cared for every student and helped them before and after school, and even in their homes. Mrs. "A," as she is affectionately known, had the gift to motivate her students. Her belief in them led them to believe in themselves," Needham said. "Probably their most cherished achievement is the fact that both Lee and Jerry have made such a difference in the lives of so many hundreds of students in Newton County."

The couple also served in various capacities at Julia A. Porter United Methodist Church, including teaching Sunday school and helping with the group Mexico Missions.

During his entire time in Newton County, Jerry has also been a Boy Scout trainer and leader. He has won numerous awards and helped 28 young men reach the high honor of Eagle Scout. Crowe, who also nominated the Aldridges for the award, personally thanked Jerry for helping Crowe's grandson, Zach, become an Eagle Scout.

"This is a picture of me getting my Eagle Scout award," Crowe said, showing a small photograph to the assembled crowd. "The man who gave me my Eagle Award is R.O. Arnold. I know he would be pleased to see Jerry getting this award."

Jerry also is involved in Kiwanis and Lee volunteers at the Newton Medical Auxiliary, and has served on the board of Covington's planning and zoning commission, Learning Center, Mental Health and the American Cancer Society.

Two other significant awards were handed out at the chamber reception.

Jeremy Shearer, owner of Beyond Exterminating, was honored with the Dick James Small Business Award. Shearer opened his business in April 2004, but within three months he was called by the U.S. Marine Corps to serve a tour in Iraq.

During his tour, his commanding officer sent a letter to Shearer's parents praising their son, and describing him as a leader and professional - "the poster child of a Marine."

Since returning, Shearer has grown his exterminating business to become one of the most recognizable in Newton County, said Gena McLendon, head of the chamber's small business committee. Shearer also serves as the president of the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity and is a member of the East Metro Board of Realtors.

Finally, the chamber staff gave out an award near and dear to their heart. Chris and Teri Haler of Current Events Productions were given the Chamber's Spirit of Excellence Award for their constant support to the chamber. Incoming Chamber Chairman Jerry Mays said the Halers have helped every department at the chamber including tourism, economic development, small businesses and marketing.

In particular he thanked them for their help with the Buy Local campaign, including creating logos for the campaign and the chamber, and for helping bring multiple new members to the chamber.

Finally, 2009 Chamber Chairman Joe Stier officially handed over the leadership gavel to the 2010 chair, Mays. In his outgoing speech, Stier recapped some of the year's biggest successes, including drawing more than 12,000 tourists, being involved in 24 economic development project proposals, bringing in 61 new chamber members and starting the Buy Local campaign.

Mays thanked Stier for his leadership and said he hoped to continue to lead the chamber to prosperity in 2010. He said the top priority this year was to hire a chamber president.

"We feel this is a great opportunity for the right person to come in here. We're currently reviewing résumés and meeting with people at the state level," Mays said. "We understand this is an important hire, and we want to find someone quickly, but our goal is to find the right person."

Outgoing and incoming members of the board of directors were also honored.