This year’s WISH Women of Distinction are Clare Bennett, Renee Schofield, Caitlin Andrews, Linda Gilson and Holly Churchill. (WISH Photo by Shawna Shotwell – Shotwell Photography)

A packed audience celebrated six Ketchikan women on Saturday during the Women of Distinction luncheon, hosted by Women in Safe Homes. The event coincided with Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day.

“What is a woman of distinction? A woman who demonstrates excellence, leadership and integrity in their fields and community,” said WISH board member Gerry Balluta. “They serve as role models for other women, as well as tomorrow’s leaders.”

And those Women of Distinction this year are Caitlin Andrews, a social worker at the hospital; Clare Bennett, known for many accomplishments but mostly for teaching and acting; master Haida weaver and teacher Holly Churchill; retired nurse Linda Gilson, a longtime volunteer with First City Council on Cancer; and Renee Schofield who runs Tongass Substance Screening, and volunteers with the Ketchikan Wellness Coalition.

Hattie Lee Baumgartner also was honored posthumously for bringing happiness to so many people though her positive attitude and never-ending cache of jokes.

Caitlin Andrews was introduced to the crowd by her friend Brittany Pope, who also is the one who nominated Andrews. Pope said Andrews was there for her through a frightening medical scare.

“When I saw this come across my work email, I said, I need to nominate Caitlin. She went out of her way to make me feel loved, supported, how any friend should,” Pope said. “She went above and beyond. She does that for the people that she works with, she does that for people at PeaceHealth, she does that for the people of this community.”

Andrews told the group that growing up in Ketchikan helped shape who she is. She wrote a poem about what that means to her. It references parents, teachers and others who still keep in touch, all the outdoor experiences available in Alaska’s First City.

“Ketchikan is a unique, beautiful place all its own. I’m blessed to be back with a family of my own,” she said, tearfully. “From Arizona to Texas, back to Alaska, unsure of the path meant for me. Now I’m here and I’ve been deemed a woman I’ve always hoped I’d be.”

Clare Bennett was introduced by her son, Colin Patton. He told about her arrival in Ketchikan 33 years ago on a sailboat, her first jobs teaching at the high school, Revilla Alternative School and later the local branch of the University of Alaska Southeast. Bennett also has volunteered with many organizations, especially First City Players.

“Much of my childhood was spent in the giant toybox that is the backstage of a theater,” he said. “It was there that Clare directed, choreographed and acted, sometimes in fact with frightening regularity as a man and once even in the nude. She has mimed as well, and I’ll let you be the judge of which is more courageous.”

Bennett told the crowd that she was honored to be recognized. And a little confused when she first got the call. She said her family told her that it’s because she’s touched a lot of lives.

“I’ve had the privilege to touch a lot of lives because this community demands it, or encourages, or gives it to us,” she said. “So while I feel proud to be here, I feel more that I’m a loving representative of what this community can do.”

Holly Churchill was introduced by Merle Hawkins, who wore a cedar bark hat that had been made by her friend. Hawkins said Churchill was nominated by the Totem Heritage Center and Ketchikan Indian Community.

“She was very resistant. She said she doesn’t volunteer,” Hawkins said. “I almost had to laugh because I’ve had the privilege of traveling with her and serving with her as a delegate for Tlingit Haida Central Council. I’ll list some of the things she volunteers for in the community. I have no idea what she does out on Haida Gwaii, but I know she does a lot of volunteer work over there and everywhere she goes.”

Haida Gwaii is a Haida First Nations community outside of Prince Rupert, British Columbia.

Just a few of the items Hawkins mentioned were volunteer work with the local arts council, mentoring, advocacy for traditional healing and subsistence food gathering, and volunteer work with KIC.

Churchill recalled living with her grandparents, and a lesson taught by her grandfather, George Peratrovich. She said he told her to always offer to help her grandmother, even if her grandmother said no – which she did.

Eventually, Churchill said, her grandmother let her help.

“Because of that lesson of asking to do something and her eventually allowing me to, I learned this lesson: It doesn’t hurt to ask, and it doesn’t hurt to be asked to do something, to find light in your heart and glee in your day to be appreciated on the least little thing,” she said. “That’s what I try to do, and I’m here. So, Haw’aa.”

Haw’aa is “thank you” in Haida.

Kirstie Hodel introduced the next honoree, her grandmother, Linda Gilson. Hodel said Gilson is one of those women who can do it all.

“Most of us, I know especially me, we are living a very fast-paced life where we have jobs, family and our community pulling us many different directions and we struggle to find the time to balance everything. But Linda somehow always finds the time to balance all of it,” Hodel said. “She’s able to be dedicated to her family, her job and her community.”

Gilson said she came to Ketchikan in 1968 because of a magazine advertisement recruiting nurses for the local hospital. Turned out she liked it, so she stayed a little longer than the one year she had planned.

“It has been a community you can give back and help as much as you want,” she said. “My love has been the First City Council on Cancer the last 20-some years. We did retire from that, Johnny and I, two years ago as far as running it, but it’s still actively going. I have my socks on. I couldn’t find my hat, but I do have raffle tickets to sell.”

Gilson was referring to the annual St. Patrick’s Day auction, which is the primary fundraiser for First City Council on Cancer. That nonprofit organization provides financial assistance to cancer patients and their families.

Cindi Byrd introduced Renee Schofield. She talked about Schofield’s volunteer work that’s focused on reducing substance abuse, along with organizing the annual health fair. Byrd said Schofield is a good friend and supportive of others.

“Renee helps people be the best version of themselves. Whether coaching you to be better in your workplace or in your personal life, she cares about you: Her friend, her coworker, her neighbor,” Byrd said.

Schofield was out of town, so couldn’t attend the luncheon. Her granddaughter, Amber Murfeld, read a letter that Schofield wrote.

“Thank you for this award, not for me but for all of Ketchikan, who together makes change happen,” Amber read. “I’m grateful to share this moment with such women like Linda, Clare, Holly and Caitlin, who are such great role models for all of us.”

The luncheon ended with a posthumous award to Hatti Baumgartner, who died last June. Hattie had lifelong health issues, but was quite possibly the most cheerful person in Ketchikan. She would talk to anyone, and always had a knock-knock joke or a pun to share.

Baumgartner volunteered at the Pioneers Home, served on the Governor’s Council on Disabilities and Special Education, participated in Special Olympics, was a sign language interpreter and was a volunteer school aide.

As members of her family came up to the stage, the audience gave a standing ovation.

Her mother, Andriana Moss, was the first to speak about Hattie.

“Hattie’s life was all about family. And to Hattie, all of Ketchikan was her family,” she said.

Hattie’s sister, Naomi Michelsen, also spoke.

“Hattie was my sister and my role model,” she said. “She walked her talk. She was a lover of humankind, especially children. She had great faith and prayed every day. She was nonjudgmental. You couldn’t be mad around her.”

WISH started giving Women of Distinction awards in 2008, and held five annual events before taking a break. This year’s Women of Distinction lunch was the first since 2012.