WASHINGTON – A hot summer day in June 1990 started out like any other until Aulby “Larry” Gillett took a drive that happened to save somebody's life.
That day also changed the perspective of a man who was already a committed volunteer.
“It gave me the idea to want to help deaf people in the community improve their access to the 9-1-1 system,” said Gillett,who is deaf,in sign language through an interpreter.
The San Angelo,Texas,resident arrived here Monday with all expenses paid,representing his hometown and the Standard-Times as a local winner of a Jefferson Award.
The award,given by the American Institute for Public Service,recognizes outstanding community and public service work.
Five of the 74 local winners were named national winners of the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Award for Outstanding Public Service Tuesday evening.
Winners of the national award were Mark Lunsford of Tampa,Fla.,for his work behind creating “Jessie's Law,” a tougher law against sexual predators; Stanley Ratliff of Chicago,Ill.,for creating Hope House,a recovery home for ex-felons coming out of incarceration; Holly Dunn-Pendelton of Evansville,Ind.,a survivor of the railroad serial killer massacre in 1997 who has made strides to educate the Kentucky community of the horrors of sexual violence; Gail Conner of Cincinnati,Ohio,who has handed out more than 17,000 gifts to children living in the inner city of Ohio during the holiday season; and Vincenza Carrieri-Russo of Wilmington,Del.,who is the co-founder of Success Won't Wait,a nonprofit literacy organization that provides books throughout Delaware.
Gillett and others were honored at a dinner where the Onassis winners were announced.
Hosted by actress Ellen Burstyn,the dinner also recognized Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning for creating the PeyBack foundation,which donates money to help children through educational and athletic programs. Other national award winners were Rep. John Lewis,D-Ga.,for public service by an elected or appointed official; I. King Jordan,president of Gallaudet University,for his public service benefiting the disadvantaged; and Michael Feinberg and David Levin for service by private citizens.
“I was shocked,” Gillett said of when he first learned he had won a trip to the nation's capital. “I have never experienced anything like this before. I am very excited and appreciative.”
The proud Texan,who donned a vest and matching bowtie of the Texas state flag,also met and was photographed with Sen. John Cornyn,R-Texas. The senator called the award “well-justified recognition.”
“They dedicated their lives to providing for others. They have reached out and filled a void in someone's life,” said the senator of the winners.
On that hot June day,Gillett,now 50,had just passed by a car fire,but his heightened senses noticed something that onlookers didn't catch. A person was caught inside. He didn't hesitate for a moment to risk his own life,jump into the fire and pull the man out. Gillett instantly became a local hero.
However,what those around him,including the man whose life he saved,didn't realize was this local hero happened to be deaf.
With his changed perspective,the U.S. postal employee helped Texas develop a 9-1-1 system for the deaf and hearing impaired,working with state representatives to draft and pass legislation.
Having always been an advocate for the deaf and hard of hearing,Gillett is a member of the governing board for the Texas School for the Deaf and has served as a chair member of the San Angelo mayor's committee for disabled persons.
Gillett's boss at the U.S. Postal Service,Postmaster Ernie Jones,nominated him for the Jefferson Award.
“He does excellent work with the community,not only with people who have hearing disabilities,” Jones said.
Gillett plans to take his experience in Washington and turn it into an educational tool for those – with and without disabilities – back at home.
“I know that I've had a positive influence on others,” Gillett said. “People can realize they can do things without limitation because I show them that it can be done.”
“I am so proud of him,” said Paula Ross Lewis,Gillett's fiancée. “He just helps so many people in need and I think that's an inspiration.”