The Lawrence Chamber of Commerce will honor several people and businesses as part of its annual meeting, which is set for 5:30 p.m. Friday at Holiday Inn Lawrence, 200 McDonald Drive.
Dwayne Peaslee will receive the Citizen of the Years award. Other honorees are:
- Kevin Loos, phosphate business manager for ICL’s phosphoric acid and sodium phosphate production plant in North Lawrence, who will receive the Wally Galluzzi Volunteer of the Year Award. Loos currently volunteers as the chairman of the Leadership Lawrence Advisory Board, the city’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, and is active in the United Way and Junior Achievement, and he coaches several youth sports teams.
- Mary Loveland, who will receive the Buford M. Watson Jr. Public Service Award. Loveland recently completed 20 years of service on the Lawrence school board. During her tenure, Loveland was part of opening 10 new schools or educational programs, and city voters approved $147 million worth of bonds for school improvements.
- Ann Gardner, editorial page editor of the Lawrence Journal-World, who will receive the Athena Award, which recognizes individuals who assist women in reaching their full leadership potential. Gardner is a past president of several organizations serving women, including Emily Taylor Women’s Resource Center, the American Association of University Women and Kansas University Sellards Scholarship Hall. Gardner also is a past chairwoman of the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce board of directors, the chamber’s Leadership Lawrence program and was a participant in the Kansas Community Leadership Initiative sponsored by the Kansas Health Foundation. Gardner currently serves on the board of the Douglas County Historical Society and is the author of “Kansas Women,” a book of Kansas history published by the Emily Taylor Women’s Resource Center.
- Berry Plastics, which will be honored with the chamber’s Large Business of the Year Award for its work to build a new $20 million, 600,000-square-foot warehouse and printing facility in northwest Douglas County.
- Grandstand Sportswear and Glassware, which has been named the chamber’s Small Business of the Year for its recent expansion into the former Sauer Danfoss facility in the East Hills business Park, which is expected to allow the business to add 40 new employees over the next five years.
Neeli Bendapudi, dean of the Kansas University School of Business, will be the keynote speaker at the event.
Dropping out of Kansas University may have been the best career decision Dwayne Peaslee ever made.
He didn’t leave KU to head to some Ivy League school or anything like that. Nor did he become some Steve Jobs-like wunderkind who created a successful business out of his garage.
Instead, Peaslee simply became a Lawrence plumber and a pipefitter. Not the owner of a Lawrence plumbing company, mind you, but rather a hired hand who worked on projects ranging from the Farmland Industries fertilizer plant to dormitories at the university he left behind.
Peaslee’s blue collar path turned out like many forays into the trades do — just fine.
“You know, both of my kids graduated from college,” said Peaslee. “And even though they have both been out for a long time, neither one of them make as much as I did when I retired.
“All of us want our kids to have it better than we had it. I understand that, but I think it is important to remember that there are a lot of good ways to make a living without a bachelor’s degree.”
Peaslee has been preaching that message for more than 30 years in Lawrence. In that time he’s served on the Chamber of Commerce’s board of directors and the city and county’s top economic development boards. But what he’s really served as is the community’s unofficial Blue Collar Champion.
“Dwayne was always the guy who kept us grounded and reminded us that there are all types of people in this community, and we need all types of jobs,” said Shirley Martin-Smith, an owner of a local employment agency and a former Lawrence mayor who served on multiple boards with Peaslee.
For his efforts, Peaslee will be honored as the Citizen of the Years at the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce’s annual meeting on Friday.
Peaslee is not necessarily the guy you would expect to see in front of a chamber of commerce crowd receiving a lifetime achievement award.
While working as a plumber, Peaslee successfully won election as the business manager for the local plumbers and pipefitters union in the late 1980s and held the position until he retired in 1993.
To say it is rare for chambers of commerce to give lifetime achievement awards to union leaders is a bit like saying Congress kind of argues.
Maybe, then, it is not surprising that it took something as random as a messy desk to bring the chamber and Peaslee together. Peaslee started working with the chamber soon after he began going through his new desk at the plumber and pipefitters’ Lawrence headquarters off Haskell Avenue. There, he found an old “certificate of investment” that the union had purchased years ago to help the chamber of commerce with its startup costs.
Peaslee decided it was time to go collect the $100 it was entitled to from the chamber. Then-Chamber President Gary Toebben paid the $100 debt, and the two found out they had a bit in common — mainly the desire to see more jobs in the city.
“Many chamber members didn’t like organized labor, and many of my peers couldn’t understand how I could get along with the chamber,” Peaslee said. “But I wanted to work with them because I had come to realize that confrontation wasn’t usually the way to get things done.”
The next thing you knew, Peaslee had become a player in the city’s economic development infrastructure. He ended up being an 11-year member of the Lawrence-Douglas County Economic Development Board, was a member of the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission, and a member of the city’s Public Incentives Review Committee that made recommendation on tax abatements and other incentives for businesses.
Peaslee is believed, chamber leaders said, to be the only union business manager to have served on its board of directors. Martin-Smith said Peaslee’s involvement in the chamber helped build some important bridges in the community.
“Business people really ended up respecting Dwayne,” Peaslee said. “They learned that what he really is all about is putting in a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay.”
These days, Peaslee, 79, spends much of his retirement talking about work. He currently serves on the Kansas Board of Education’s Advisory Council on Career and Technical Training. Over the years, various governors have appointed him to more than a half-dozen statewide commissions or boards related to workforce training. In August, Peaslee became the first Kansan ever to be inducted into the United States Apprenticeship Association Hall of Fame.
Peaslee still uses his positions to talk about the virtues of labor unions. He’s not sure he would have had the opportunity to get into the plumbing profession in the early 1950s had it not been for weekend classes that were held by the union in the basement of the old Liberty Memorial High School building.
But he also spends some time talking about his days at KU. The son of a plumber, Peaslee thought engineering might be a good fit for him. “I didn’t do well,” Peaslee said of his time in college. “I went through high school never needing to study, then when I got to KU, I realized nobody cared whether I studied, so I didn’t.”
But he said the experience taught him something important.
“Not everyone is geared to go to a four- or five-year university,” Peaslee said. “And you know what? That’s all right.”
Peaslee, though, said he’s not sure that message is coming through very well to either high school students or their parents.
“I feel like what happens so often is that kids get pushed to get that degree, and then they get a degree in a field without many job opportunities,” Peaslee said.
Part of the issue, he said, is that the U.S. economy has changed so much that it is difficult for a high school student to get the type of once common part-time jobs that expose them to physical labor. Consequently, the idea of a physically demanding job in the trades can seem daunting — especially the idea of spending five years as an apprentice, which is the standard for plumbers and pipefitters. Today, the building trades industry has been hammered by the downturn in the construction industry.
Peaslee, though, said there are still shortages in several skilled labor positions. He often tells a story about a ditch to help convince students to at least explore the path of a blue collar career, which he says can be a bit bumpy in the beginning but gets smoother as you go.
He said not too many years ago, a local plumbing contractor needed an apprentice at a job site to work in a ditch. Problem was, it was July in Kansas, and the temperature was topping the century mark. Apprentice after apprentice went to the job site only to return, saying it was too hot or too dirty for them to continue.
But the third guy who went to the site stuck it out.
“That guy is now making $30 an hour, has health insurance for his family, and has a retirement plan,” Peaslee said. “It is not a bad life.”