Tracy realtor Lisa Aguilera, who is in the middle of her one-year term as chairman of the Tracy Chamber of Commerce’s board of directors, stopped by Barista’s the other morning for a cup of coffee as she does periodically.

During the conversation, Lisa mentioned that she hoped a good number of Tracy people will be attending the Chamber’s Annual Awards Gala that is coming up on Jan. 28.

W.E. Brown

W.E. Brown

“It’s important to recognize the contributions individuals, businesses and organizations have contributed to our community,” she said.

Last year’s Chamber Awards Gala was postponed six months, from January to July, after the Covid-19 pandemic set in, but it still had a good turnout. Hopefully, participation will be as good this year.

Last year, I had an enjoyable evening when I presented the Business of the Year award to a group of employees from Leprino Foods, which operates the cheese factory at Grant Line Road and MacArthur Drive. I was impressed how excited the Leprino employees were about their company, the nation’s largest producer of Mozzarella cheese, being recognized in the town where one of its main factories is located.

This year’s Chamber Awards Gala is being billed as its 60th annual. It was in 1961 that the first Tracy citizen was being honored.

Looking back at a list of honors over the last six decades, the name W.E. Brown pops out, since William Elton Brown was the first recipient in 1961. He was never called William, Elton, “Bill” or Mr. Brown, though. It was always just “Brownie,” no last name required or expected.

“Brownie,” did a lot for Tracy as a volunteer in a number of ways. For years, he was the main volunteer ambulance driver in the days when Tracy had only one ambulance, operated first by Hotchkiss Mortuary and then Tracy Community Memorial Hospital.

He was also captain of the Tracy Police Reserves whose volunteer officers often went on patrol on their own. He later was elected a member of the City Council then voted by the Council to be Tracy’s mayor.

For more than a decade, Brownie was Tracy’s representative on the committee that met at towns up and down the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, advising the State Highway Commission on the best route along the foothills, and away from more productive farmland, for what was originally called the West Side Freeway and later mostly Interstate 5 and in the Tracy area, Interstate 580. If you ever wondered why I-580 west and south of town is named the W.E. Brown Freeway, now you know.

The presentation to Brownie in 1961 (held in the Tracy Inn Gold Room as most civic events were in those days) was different than that of the current Galas.

First off, the name of the recipient was supposed to be a secret until announced at the presentation. Most years, though, the recipient had figured that out, especially when family members and close friends were plentiful in the audience.

And secondly, the award wasn’t initially named Citizen of the Year. For first 17 years, it was Mr. Tracy. No women nominated or selected. (I can already hear women’s groans loud and clear.) It was in 1978, when the award’s name was changed to Citizen of the Year, allowing Lolly Hansen to be selected. She was a Soroptimist Club member who for several decades was the volunteer backbone of the Tracy Senior Citizens Club. The city’s Senior Center is named for her.

There was only one Citizen of the Year (male or female) selected through 1985. Barbara Fitzpatrick, who played a major role in establishing McHenry House Tracy Family Shelter, was the last one. After that, one of each gender was selected from those nominated.

Anyway, both a male and female Citizen of the Year will be recognized Jan. 28 in the Tracy Community Center along with other honorees including Business of the Year, Entrepreneur of the Year, Professional of the Year, Organization of the Year and Agriculturist of the Year.

I noticed at the last Chamber Awards Gala that the male and female Citizens of the Year awards were presented in the middle of the presentations. I felt that although all the awards were important to recognize achievements and contributions to our town, the Citizen of the Year awards deserved greater prominence, such as being the final awards presented. I believe that will be the case this year, and I’m happy that will occur.

By next week, we’ll know who this year’s recipients are, but the remaining mystery, at least for me, is this: What is this year’s Gala theme of “Fire and Ice” all about? Costumes worn by some of the Gala attendees may provide the answer.

• Sam Matthews, Tracy Press publisher emeritus, can be reached at 830-4234 or by email at

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