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The most satisfying relay of all

Posted: Tuesday, Nov 13th, 2012

Mitch Landgraf, left, receives the Horace D. Hume Outstanding Service Award from Chamber of Commerce president Brian Fisher during the Chamber's annual dinner on Nov. 9. (Reporter photo by Jennifer Sommer)

MENDOTA - The 2012 Hume Outstanding Service Award was presented on Nov. 9 during the Mendota Chamber of Commerce's annual dinner. This year's recipient, Mitch Landgraf, was instrumental in the success of the recently formed Relay For Life of Upper Illinois Valley. While serving as chair of the event the past two years, Landgraf was able to bring the Relay to Lake Mendota. Following its first year in Mendota, the local Relay raised over $155,000 for cancer research and was recognized by the American Cancer Society for having the second highest customer satisfaction score in the entire country.

While announcing this year's Hume Award winner, Chamber of Commerce executive director Alison Wasmer described Landgraf as not only being extremely active in the community but also being very proud of Mendota. "Anyone who meets him is instantly struck by his love of the Mendota community," Wasmer said. "Our winner is described as innovative, caring, passionate, amazing, determined and a class act."

Generally not at a loss for words, Landgraf found himself in an unusual predicament while accepting the award. "You might want to write this down - I might be speechless," he admitted, drawing a laugh from the crowd. "This is really an honor because you are the people I look up to. You welcomed me into this community 20 years ago . . . I very much thank you for honoring me."

Although Landgraf was born and raised in Peru, his family was originally from Mendota. "My great grandfather, Arthur A. Landgraf, was one of the five people who started what is now the First State Bank," he said. "My dad spent his childhood here but when he got his first job, he moved to Peru."

After completing his education, Landgraf had the opportunity to move to Mendota after being hired as a guidance counselor by Mendota High School, a position he has held for the past 19 years. "It was almost like coming home," he said. "The position opened up right after I completed my school counseling degree and I had the privilege of interviewing with Bob Cooper. I never had the privilege of working with him but he hired me and I'm very grateful for that. Then I was blessed to work under the mentorship of another dedicated community member, Jeri Atherton, until her retirement."

Landgraf said he was inspired to become a guidance counselor mainly due to his own confusion in trying to choose a career. "I realized how difficult that was for me and I wanted to help young people maybe have less of a challenge doing so - getting down to who they are, what's going to be rewarding to them," he explained. "It's the best part of the job and an absolute privilege to be a part of helping young people put their life plan together."

Although he had ancestral ties to Mendota, Landgraf was still a newcomer when he moved to the community. Fortunately, he was able to spend his first seven summers interning at various businesses, in some cases as a volunteer and in others through a state program. "The program encouraged businesses to let educators work as interns to get more experience in the real world," Landgraf said.

As a career counselor, this experience provided Landgraf exposure to a variety of careers. It also helped him become better acquainted with the community. "I spent one summer in each of the top five employers that we had in Mendota . . . that was priceless," he said. "I got to know people, the community, and learn more about career opportunities for students right here."

Landgraf said he also joined the Mendota Rotary early on and saw some great examples of volunteer service. "Roger Anderson started the Interact Club for youth, and then we really put fuel on the fire," he said. "Interact is still alive and well today and at one point we were the largest, most active club in the state."

Landgraf said he learned the importance of community service from a young age, however. "I saw a lot of examples of good community service. My dad led what I think is still the largest fundraiser ever for the Illinois Valley, which was for group homes for Horizon House," he said. "And my mom was a very caring person who helped a lot of people on a one-on-one basis."

But Landgraf admitted that there is another very personal reason for the work he does today. "I call it 'the wreckage of the past' and I think we all have stuff like that," he said. "I had to do a lot of work, a lot of healing in my life. When you work through stuff, you feel compelled to help other people, have compassion.

"The depth of my story includes addiction, abuse, suicide attempt, abuse by a Catholic priest, horrific revictimization and deceipt by the area's Catholic bishop and all kinds of wounds I'm not sure many are aware of," Landgraf continued. "I'm so honored by this award because it deep down recognizes the path of healing that it has taken to get to this point. There was some really rough stuff. The thing I'm most grateful for is the daily gift of being able to live a free and sober lifestyle of service to others. When I talk about the wreckage of the past, there's also something in this award that honors all of us who have struggles. You can heal those things and really go a long way. If we don't heal, we become that which we hate. If we do heal, we will love what we become."

For Landgraf, the most important accomplishment in his life has been this healing work. "If people wonder why I seem so free now, it's because I did the work to put the shame and guilt of all of that stuff back where it belonged and it opened up the real me," he said. "I only got to that point after years of counseling and support group work and all the trials you hear survivors of any sort have to go through if we want to come out on the other side. When you finally get to a place of healing, gratitude and acceptance, what flows from that is compassion, caring, and relationships - real life. You're freed to live a real life."

While he is very grateful for the Hume Award, Landgraf said he sees it as a symbol of the work done by the entire community. "I'm grateful but I really accept this on behalf of the Relayers and all the other people who do so much community service," he said. "The award encourages others, especially my students, to understand that this is what it means to live in a community. That's kind of why this is the World's Greatest Little City. No offense, but I don't want to become a cookie-cutter copy of any other community or suburb. What we need are more places like Mendota, with meaningful person to person connections."

Landgraf said looking at the list of people who have previously received the Hume Award would be humbling for anyone. "I had the privilege, for example, of getting to know Tom Merwin in the last year of his life, and working with people like Mayor Bowne before cancer took him. To be among those people is truly an honor," he said. "I never in a million years expected to be awarded this. The award acknowledges service, relationship, and this community's goodness. That's the real deal."

Landgraf identified his wife, Tammy, as his greatest source of support, and thanked his children for the sacrifices they too have made when a parent is involved in community service.

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