Tim Phalen, second from left, accepts the Horace D. Hume Outstanding Service Award from Mendota Chamber executive director Jesse Arellano, left, Chamber president Jan Phalen and incoming president Michelle Wade, right, at the annual Chamber Dinner on Nov. 3. (Reporter photo by Jennifer Sommer)
MENDOTA - In small towns, volunteerism is a large part of what fosters a strong sense of community spirit. Through their dedicated work, volunteers make possible many of the activities that make small town life so appealing.
To recognize this important work, each year the Mendota Area Chamber of Commerce presents the H.D. Hume Award for community service to a volunteer who has worked consistently over the years for the benefit of the community. The name of the winner is kept secret until being announced during the Chamber’s annual dinner, held this year on Nov. 3 at the Mendota Civic Center.
Tim Phalen, who received the 2017 Hume Award, said he was definitely surprised to be chosen and never even considered that his name would be called. Phalen, who attends the dinner every year with his wife, Jan, listened as Chamber executive director Jesse Arellano gave clues about the person leading up to the announcement. “As I was listening to the intro, it described about 80 percent of the people there,” Phalen chuckled. “When he got to ‘Quarterback Club board member,’ I was still trying to figure it out because that’s such a small group but I still didn’t think it was me.”
Finally, when Phalen heard, “served as president of the Chamber,” it sank in that he had been chosen for the honor.
A native of Mendota, Phalen graduated from Holy Cross School, Mendota High School and Northern Illinois University before landing a job in Crystal Lake with Pella Windows, where he worked for 12 years. He and Jan enjoyed life in the suburbs but when their oldest child was ready for kindergarten, they began to weigh the pros and cons of raising their kids in the suburbs versus moving back to Mendota. Both were in agreement that a small town upbringing would be better and the return to their hometown was set in motion.
Once the decision was made, Phalen said everything seemed to fall into place. His grandfather’s house happened to be on the market at the time and he was offered a job transfer to this area. “Pella was going to open a location in Peru, but then they pulled the plug and decided not to invest in a small town,” he recalled.
Undeterred, Phalen considered other possibilities for employment, which included starting his own construction company. Meanwhile, his four brothers were running the family business, Phalen Steel Construction Company. When they realized he was serious about returning to Mendota, they encouraged him to work for them. After a bit of negotiating, he became the fifth brother to join the company and started work on Jan. 1, 2001.
Phalen admitted that after living in the Chicago suburbs, he wondered at first what there would be to do around here. He soon realized that was a bit short-sighted. In a small community surrounded by family and friends, there was always something to do. “I’m never bored - in fact, there’s more to do here,” he laughed.
A tireless supporter of the Chamber over the years, Phalen served as board president from 2005-06 and has consistently volunteered in many aspects of the Sweet Corn Festival, everything from providing equipment used for set up and tear down, to designing and building new storage containers and helping with storage of Chamber equipment. He has also been a huge supporter, sounding board and helper for Jan during her years on the Chamber board and over the past year while she served as board president.
Phalen is also a member of the Mendota Elks Lodge, the Optimist Club, Mendota Booster Club and the Mendota Quarterback Club. He emphasized that his involvement in the community is largely due to the example set by his parents, Bill and Sandy Phalen. It is an example he and Jan have continued with their three children, Nick, Cameron and Abby, as well. “My dad was always so fast to volunteer his help or to donate anything that was needed for a project or event,” he explained. “He was always right there.”
Phalen fondly recalled one time as a teenager when he was working with his dad during set up for the Sweet Corn Fest. His dad decided that the work would be easier if they had a dump truck, so he told Tim to go get one. After driving the truck back downtown, Phalen looked around at the guys who were doing the heavy work and realized these were the same people who had received the Hume Award.
“I learned from my parents that it’s your responsibility to help, whether for the Sweet Corn Festival or anything else in the community,” he emphasized. “That’s just part of small town living, providing a sense of community. It’s good parenting.”
And yet, considering the list of previous Hume Award winners, Phalen still expressed uncertainty about his place among those who preceded him. “This is a huge honor to be recognized. Other people who have gotten the award seem so deserving, they are people you admire,” he said. “It’s an amazing list when you look at all the things they have done, but you don’t really think about the things you do. It’s just what you do - it’s definitely easier to look at other people and see all they have done. There is a whole list of incredibly deserving people out there.”
Phalen believes all of that volunteer work has reaped many rewards for Mendota and he is excited about the future of his hometown. One of the driving forces in Mendota, he said, has been the evolution of the Chamber. In the past, the Chamber board was made up of an older group of people, but that demographic has changed. Now, people in their 20s and 30s serve on the board and have embraced a leadership role. “That’s how you perpetuate community involvement and the community itself,” he said. “It’s refreshing to see.”
Looking back, Phalen said this was by far the most impressive year the Chamber ever had. “Not only was it profitable, but there were so many changes and innovations, there isn’t even a close second to what was done this year,” he noted.
With the large-scale expansion of three local businesses, ADM, Starved Rock Wood Products and DiversiFoam, Phalen sees a bright future. “I am really encouraged by the community and the Chamber,” he said. “Mendota is on a very positive upswing.”