Much to his surprise, Art Wanner became the fifth awardee of the Stark County Spirit of Excellence Award Tuesday night at the Stark County Veterans Memorial Pavilion for his service to the community, particularly the work he’s done to honor fellow military veterans for their courageous sacrifices.

Wanner was told he was coming to a birthday party, but soon found that more than 100 people in attendance had gathered to celebrate his good deeds.

Wanner enlisted in the National Guard in 1965 as a combat engineer, and attended Officer Candidate School three years later. His 32-year military career took him all over the state of North Dakota until he retired in 1996.

About 20 members of the community spoke at the podium, praising Wanner’s volunteer work with the American Legion food pantry for veterans in need, West Dakota Honor Flights, ABLE Inc., Honor Guard, Quilts of Valor, Knights of Columbus and St. Joseph’s Catholic Church among other community organizations. He was nominated for the award by Cathy Logosz.

Cathy’s husband Dave Logosz, who leads the Stark County Veterans Memorial, said Wanner worked harder than anyone else to see that project through to completion. Logosz said he traveled to Washington D.C. in the 1980s and saw the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.

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“I said someday, I’d like to see a memorial built in Stark County to honor all of its veterans. About 10 years ago, we had a founding meeting which got the program off the ground, and Art was elected vice president,” Logosz said. “No one has done as much as Art. He’s spent hundreds, if not thousands, of hours making this memorial a success. When we were done with the memorial, I had this idea that we should have a picnic shelter up there. Well, this is the picnic shelter.”

One member of the community called it the “million dollar picnic shelter.” Wanner worked tirelessly, raising more than $800,000 to get the pavilion built. Then he spent a substantial amount of time collaborating with the Dickinson Parks and Recreation Board on designing the building.

Rich Brauhn is a former Grand Knight and Trustee for the Knights of Columbus Council #6308. He said Wanner has been very active with Knights and St. Joseph’s parish by taking part in fundraising, blood donation, confirmations, parish council activities and Knights of Columbus breakfasts.

“By the way Art, it’s not my birthday,” Brauhn said, jokingly. “People don’t realize that churches need movers and shakers too. Art is one of those people for sure. He’s the man responsible for our Memorial Mass in which we remember all the deceased knights and veterans of our church.”

George Peterman, Past Grande Chef de Gare for Forty and Eight veterans group, said that when he first moved to Dickinson he found Wanner to be incredibly helpful in his new role with the organization.

“He made me look good,” Peterman said, drawing laughs from the crowd. “Art has done more to show the world exactly what an American Legionnaire is than anyone I know. His adherence to the values and principles of the American Legion is, as I said, the very definition of a legionnaire. So thank you Art. May God bless you and Char. I know I am blessed to be able to call you my friend.”

Mary Anderson, executive director of ABLE Inc., thanked Wanner for volunteering and serving as board member. ABLE is a local charity that helps people with intellectual disabilities. Anderson said they needed someone passionate about helping the disabled, and choosing Wanner as a board member was a no-brainer.

“We look for people who are committed, compassionate and have good common sense. That’s Art, and he’s been with us for six years. But we got lucky, we got a person with a sense of humor,” Anderson said.

Wanner told the crowd an emotional story about a bleak period in his life when he decided to devote so much of his time to benevolent causes.

“Over 20 years ago, I lost my wife when she was hit by a drunk driver. I sat alone several nights, wondering how I was going to go on. It was a very dark time. I remember one night in particular I said, ‘Lord, I’m kind of stuck here. You’ve got to help get my life back on track,’” he recalled. “I remembered very distinctly from that time on the support that I received from the community and how much it meant to me that people cared. I kind of made a vow at that time — ‘Lord you helped me get my life back on track. I’m going to spend the rest of my life basically trying to repay that kindness back to the community.' That’s where it all started.”

Wanner also expressed gratitude to God for the health that’s allowed him to be so active, and for his new wife Char, who he said has been a wonderful addition to his life. He also said he looks forward to continuing to take on challenges that will make Stark County a magnificent place to live.

“I’ve tried to pay back. I thought I was getting close. But this tonight, all it did was set the goal posts further. So I’ve got a whole lot more to do,” Wanner said.

Julie Obrigewitsch, sales and social media coordinator for the Dickinson Convention and Visitors Bureau, said she’s enjoyed recognizing members of the community who are doing wonderful things.

“It’s a program that I started in the county at the beginning of this year to help promote positivity. There was certainly a need for it. We can all make a difference in the world,” Obrigewitsch said, adding that Wanner was chosen from a list of 34 nominees.

It was tough keeping the secret from Wanner, she said.

“I’ve been joking with people and saying, ‘Well, this county really is full of a bunch of amazing liars.’ So thank you all, for not only attending but also for keeping this a secret from Art,” Obrigewitsch said, adding that, on a more serious note, the legacy of his work is special to her personally as the names of her father and grandfather are honored on the memorial wall. She said she’s very grateful to Wanner and all the other veterans there who’ve served our country.

“I mean, you have touched so many people’s lives… I just want to thank you for that,” she said. “I cannot tell you how much of an honor it is for me to be standing in front of you to be doing this for you tonight.”

Several local businesses donated gift cards and other items to accompany the award. The six mayors of Stark County make up the panel that selects honorees in a blind format to prevent the award from becoming a popularity contest. Past recipients include Tom Tessier and Jack Schaff (as a duo), Jayne Ketterling, Anika Sayler and Ruth Johnson.