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Citizen of Year Award blindsides Buxton: Community leaders speak highly of East Gull Lake man

When East Gull Lake resident Bruce Buxton got up Thursday morning, his first order of business was to head to The Center in Brainerd to meet with the city housing inspector on the new roof.

Steve Kohls/ Brainerd Dispatch Bruce Buxton instantly realizes Thursday morning the ruse was up. He was asked to come to The Center in Brainerd to inspect the roof. But instead, he was presented the 2016 Citizen of the Year award. Video
Steve Kohls/ Brainerd Dispatch Bruce Buxton instantly realizes Thursday morning the ruse was up. He was asked to come to The Center in Brainerd to inspect the roof. But instead, he was presented the 2016 Citizen of the Year award. Video

When East Gull Lake resident Bruce Buxton got up Thursday morning, his first order of business was to head to The Center in Brainerd to meet with the city housing inspector on the new roof.

Little did Buxton know his meeting was actually a ruse, and Buxton's appointment was actually to surprise him as Brainerd's 2016 Citizen of the Year.

The Center and several of Buxton's friends made up the meeting for the roof to get him to Brainerd's senior center for the award. Buxton, who has been on The Center board for nine years, was overseeing the roof project, "so a perfect cover," said DeAnn Barry, the senior center's executive director.

Barry presented the award, instead of Nancy Cross, the executive director of Brainerd Community Action, who was unable to present the award this year. Community Action sponsors the Citizen of the Year award.

"He thinks we are here for a meeting with the roofing company and the housing inspector," Barry said in the dining/commons room in front of the senior center doughnut volunteer crew and others in attendance. "Well we lied and schemed and made several phone calls to get him here. We even had to call the roofing company because we knew (Buxton) would call them, and he did."

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"So I'm not going on the roof?" Buxton asked. "So you all lied about getting me here?"

"And you," he added, looking at his wife, "lied about getting doughnuts?"

The Citizen of the Year Selection Committee met last week and chose Buxton for the award. Buxton received nomination letters from several people and organizations, including Widseth Smith and Nolting, Brainerd Lakes Area Economic Development Corporation, East Gull Lake city administrator, Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce, Central Lakes College Theatre Department, The Center, Buxton's wife Kathy Buxton and Maureen O'Gara, administrator for Stewart Mills Jr., speaking on behalf of Buxton's work with designing, building and being a general contractor for the Mills Fleet Farm stores.

Buxton was named Brainerd's Citizen of the Year because he met and exceeded the award criteria: "The award criteria is that volunteered services are above and beyond normal employment or business pursuits, the services performed contributed to the welfare of the community and were performed for an extended period of time."

Buxton was humble in accepting the award.

"I don't have anything to say," Buxton said when the audience asked for a speech. "There are more people out in the community who deserve this award. I could name hundreds of them."

Barry said the Distinguished Service Banquet will be Oct. 27.

"Are we even going to be here?" Buxton asked his wife.

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"We will be here," Kathy Buxton responded.

The Buxtons have two adult sons and five grandchildren.

"I was thrilled for him. Bruce really deserves this award," Kathy Buxton said. "He has always felt that when you live in a community, you need to give back to where you earned your living and he is such a legend. I cannot tell you how many hours he has put in volunteering. He is really worthy."

The Buxtons moved to the Brainerd lakes area in 1978 and Bruce Buxton began volunteer right away.

"After about 10 years my wife said 'You need to know how to say no,' and I didn't know how until after 20 years," he said. "But then she started volunteering so we just kept going.

"We enjoy working and giving back to the community."

Organizations Bruce Buxton has been involved with include a Scout leader for Boy Scouts, Grad Blast volunteer, Central Lakes College theatre advisory board member, Brainerd School District Steering Committee, Miss Brainerd Lakes judge, Commerce and Industry Show chair, Brainerd Chamber of Commerce member, East Gull Lake planning and zoning chair, Pink Ribbon Cupboard administrative assistant, Susan G. Komen, golf tournament co-chair, BLAEDC board member, volunteer at Brainerd Salvation Army, Toys For Kids, Crow Wing County Fair, Habitat for Humanity, Northland Arboretum and Relay for Life.

"It was really interesting volunteering at BLAEDC," Bruce Buxton said. "I enjoyed bringing in new businesses to the area. ... It helps everybody and I enjoyed making that happen."

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He's been a BLAEDC board member for the past 12 years, two of which he served as president.

In her nomination letter, Sheila Haverkamp, executive director at BLAEDC, wrote, "There are certain people that you have the pleasure of working with during your career who impact you in multiple ways, Bruce Buxton is one of those people who has impacted me personally and in our community in a very positive and unique way."

Haverkamp said one highlight was Buxton's leadership and dedication to redeveloping the former Brainerd paper plant property. When Wausau Paper announced its plans to close, Buxton led the way with the establishment of a paper plant task force. Haverkamp said not long into forming the committee, an out-of-town manufacturing prospect was interested in the plant.

"There were many early morning trips coordinated to visit the prospect's plant and Bruce would volunteer his vehicle to drive the team to the meetings, take time off work to promote our community and built solid trusting relations with the company owner," Haverkamp wrote. "Although this prospect withdrew their interest in the plant, Bruce continued leading efforts to support redevelopment of the site and actively engaged with the current owner for the past two years."

Kevin B. Wernberg, executive vice president of WSN, wrote in his nomination letter, "Not long after he started working at Widseth Smith Nolting in Crookston, Bruce Buxton coaxed the firm's owners to take a calculated risk and open a second office in Brainerd. ... (U)nder Bruce's guidance WSN's lakes area office grew to be the firm's largest location in terms of staff numbers and volume of work. Bruce retired earlier this year, but his legacy of business and community leadership continues.

"Whether it was business, family activities, his wife Kathy's endeavors, or the community at large-taken together, Bruce's drive and work ethic have had a positive and enduring impact on the lakes area and the many community members with whom he has been associated with."

In Patrick Spradlin's nomination letter from the CLC Theatre Department, he wrote, "I've known Bruce for nearly 25 years. ... In the years I've known him, Bruce has shown himself to be a true community leader, a tireless volunteer and a worthy ambassador for our city.

"What sets Bruce apart from others is an enduring optimism and a radiantly cheerful personality that infuses his work on any project or activity. He has a wry sense of humor and keeps the work sessions just light enough to maintain general interest. But more than that, he infects everyone with whom he works with a spirit of positive action, never letting anything become a barrier to what is being sought and helping others to see that forward action is always possible."

Spradlin said he has been grateful for Buxton's volunteer work on the board of advisors for the Central Lakes Community Performing Arts Center.

"Bruce has ... given exceedingly valuable advice on our operations and been a strong advocate for and support of our programming," Spradlin wrote. "He has helped shape our organization through his insights and advice."

Buxton's wife Kathy also nominated her husband for the award to offer the public the personal side of Buxton. Kathy Buxton, who was diagnosed with breast cancer 20 years ago, said her husband was at her side the entire time and said, "We'll do this together, I want you to do whatever it takes to be with me."

The Buxtons became advocates for breast cancer research and co-chaired the Relay for Life for four years and took on the corporate sponsorship working with hundreds of volunteers. Kathy Buxton said her husband was there every step of the way, helping her with the breast cancer awareness events, and supported her when she started a business fitting breast prosthetics for women who have had breast cancer.

"He has enabled me to become more of a woman than I was before," Kathy Buxton said of her husband. "He has helped other women too. He has met with the husbands of newly diagnosed and helped them sort of their feelings."

East Gull Lake City Administrator Rob Mason wrote in his nomination letter: "Bruce goes out of his way to help residents by giving them advice with the wealth of experience he brings to the job. He takes the time to make personal visits to their property and shows the patience that is always appreciated. Our most recent commission project is rewriting the city's comprehensive plan and he has spent many hours of his own time writing and editing the document.

"His professionalism and patience are invaluable to me and there is rarely a day I don't communicate with him for advice and consultation regarding the many issues we deal with for the residents."

O'Gara wrote, "My favorite Bruce quote came during a debate regarding division of workplace duties. Bruce said, 'While the office employees wouldn't have a job without me, I couldn't do my job without them. We are mutually and equally dependant upon one another.'"

O'Gara continued, "I believe Bruce Buxton is the very personification of citizen of the year and continues to be the perfect ambassador for Brainerd."

Matt Kilian, president of the Brainerd Chamber, wrote in his nomination letter, "When he retired earlier this year, he did so with a legacy of community and professional service that continues to strengthen the Brainerd lakes area.

"He's always been straightforward and encouraging, he brings unique perspective on ensuring the growth of businesses and quality jobs while preserving the natural amenities that define our community."

Barry wrote in her nomination letter that Bruce Buxton understands the mission of The Center and he comes to monthly board meetings prepared, board packets are reviewed and he is always ready to participate.

"Bruce has given of his expertise, time and talents to the lakes area community," Barry said.

Past Citizens of the Year

Past award recipients are: Elmer Johnson (1974), Marvin Campbell (1975), George Bedard (1976), Mildred Michaelis (1977), Herb Kessler (1978), Lucille Shaw (1979),

Walter Doran (1980), Ray Bang (1981), Jack Echternacht (1982), Pete Humphrey (1983), Ray Madison (1984), Birney Wilkens (1985), Jack Ruttger (1986), Bob Gross (1987), Marv Nutting (1988), Sara Dunlap (1989), Tom Isle (1990), Dick Endres (1991), Bill Van Essen (1992), Hanspeter Borgwarth (1993), Jon Haapajoki (1994), Arnie Johnson (1995), Sister Vivian Arts (1996), Warren Williams (1997), Ruth Gmeinder (1998), Kevin Thesing (1999), Terry McCollough (2000), Bonnie Cumberland (2001), Paul Bloom (2002), Reed Campbell (2003), Steve Esser (2004), Dutch and Irma Cragun (2005), Dr. Thomas Kotula (2006), Karen Owens (2007), Chip Borkenhagen (2008), Arnold "Casey" Stengel (2009), Gary Walters (2012), Bill Musel (2013), Ken Dens (2014) and James Wallin (2015).

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