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RANDY'S RAMBLINGS: Worthy winners selected for Chamber awards

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opinion River Falls, 54022
River Falls Wisconsin 2815 Prairie Drive / P.O. Box 25 54022

I came away from last week's Awards Banquet of the Chamber of Commerce & Tourism Bureau with good feelings about the Hudson business community and the Chamber's choice of honorees.

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I'm not the most sociable creature and approach such events with some trepidation. But it was unfounded in this case.

While the air outside was sub-zero, there was plenty of warmth inside the dining hall at YMCA Camp St. Croix. Hudson has a lot of genuinely nice business people. They made me feel right at home.

You couldn't have picked a more deserving group of award-winners, either. I learned something new about each of them.

I know Trudy Popenhagen well enough to guess that she was the pick for the Marie Blakeman Award when presenter Barbara Richardson said that the honoree was born in Cumberland and grew up on a family farm near Turtle Lake. I make note of fellow relocated natives of the North Country.

There's a lot I didn't know about the goodwill ambassador for Xcel Energy, however.

I didn't know that she married Lloyd, her high school sweetheart, at age 19; or that they lived in a trailer house in New Richmond and she worked at Doughboy Industries for a few years.

Their daughter, Angela - now the co-owner, president and senior project engineer of Stevens Engineers in Hudson - was born while they were in New Richmond.

The dairy-farm rearing and humble start in adulthood no doubt contributed to her down-to-earth, warmhearted style.

In 1974, the Popenhagens set about building their own house five miles west of Roberts. They worked on it nights and weekends, and lived in the lower level while completing the upper level.

By this time, their second child, Adam, had arrived. Adam now resides in Hammond with his wife and family, and is the market development manager for Profile Products.

Trudy's college education was delayed by child-rearing and employment, but in 1983 she earned a degree in business administration, with a minor in library science, from UW-River Falls.

She worked briefly for WestCAP (West Central Wisconsin Community Action Agency) assisting low-income families and as the assistant librarian at the New Richmond public library before going to work for Northern States Power in 1984. Her first position with the power company was as a customer account specialist in Hudson.

Popenhagen rose through the ranks over what has been a 26-year career with the company now known as Xcel Energy. In 2001, she was named community services manager for St. Croix, Pierce and Polk counties.

With her office in Hudson, Popenhagen has been able to serve a number of local community organizations - the Daybreak Rotary, The Phipps Center for the Arts, St. Croix Economic Development Corp., St. Croix YMCA, the United Way and the Chamber, to name a few. She is president of the St. Croix Business Park Board.

As the ambassador for Xcel Energy, she gets to deliver the many grant checks that the power company distributes to area charities, cultural organizations, schools, and business and nonprofit entities. That, of course, makes her all the more popular.

Mark Stoering, president and CEO of NSP-Wisconsin, an Xcel Energy subsidiary, attended the Chamber banquet - a sign of the respect Popenhagen enjoys within the company, as well as in the community.

Rick and Anne Reams, owners of RJ's Meats & Groceries, deserve an award from family members in addition to the one for Small Business of the Year they got from the Chamber.

Besides employing their three sons - Anthony, Aaron and Joe - Rick and Anne provide jobs for three nephews (Zachary, Cody and Broderick Reams) and a niece (Sara Reams).

But it doesn't end there, 2012 Chamber Board Chair LouAnne Berg reported. Nephew J.J. Kidd and niece Michelle Reams Proue have worked at RJ's while attending school, and Rick's brothers Tim and Steve, and brother-in-law Jack Jelinek, are always willing to help out behind the scenes. Rick's sister Kim has worked as a cashier and baker, and his father, Frank, has handled almost all of the remodeling projects over the years.

"RJ's is truly a family-owned and run business," Berg noted.

Rick is a Hudson native. He started his career in the meat industry while in high school, working for Jim Schmitz at Jim's Meats. After graduating from Hudson High in 1979, he worked full time for Schmitz until 1982, when he enlisted in the Air Force.

Rick and Anne got married and had their first son, Anthony, while Rick was serving a four-year stint in the Air Force. Rick went back to work for Schmitz when they returned to Hudson in 1986, and the next year purchased the business from him.

In the past 26 years they've made RJ's one of the most highly regarded meat shops in Wisconsin or Minnesota, and have won a slew of state and national awards for their products. And when you go to RJ's, you still get that friendly service of a hometown, family business.

The other award winners were equally deserving and inspirational.

Hudson High School senior Katelyn Baier received the Community Volunteer of the Year Award for turning her experience with Chrohn's disease into a positive by starting a charity that has provided 737 comforting blankets for patients at Minneapolis Children's Hospital.

Kathy Newman, owner of Et Cetera, not only has run a success gift and home accessories shop in downtown Hudson for 15 years, but has taken the time to serve on numerous committees for special events and Chamber activities. She was named Chamber Member of the Year.

Ambassador of the Year Traci Leffner of Sylvan Learning Center brought in 25 new Chamber members and attended nearly every ribbon-cutting in 2012.

Executive Director Dan Goodier recognized the hard work of employees and volunteers, and the support of residents' families and the community, in accepting the award for Large Business of the Year on behalf of Christian Community Homes & Services. Hudson United Methodist Church launched the campaign to establish the nursing home, which opened its doors in 1981.

In a moment of levity at the end of his gracious acceptance speech, Goodier mimicked Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers putting on the championship belt after a touchdown.

It all made me proud to call Hudson home - well, technically, North Hudson.

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