News & Politics

Standing Ovations for Service

The Partnership for Public Service awards its Service to America Medals—and stakes its claim to prominence on the gala circuit

Honorable Florence Pan, Associate Judge Superior Court of the District of Columbia

Heading into the ninth annual Service to America Medals on Wednesday night, Max Stier, president of the good-government non-profit Partnership for Public Service, set the bar high for the ceremony recognizing extraordinary federal employees.

"I think this town is still a government town. These are the government heroes," he said of the winners. "They really are the Oscars of Washington. . . . We have people knocking on our door saying they want to come."

A bold claim for an event with wonky roots? Maybe. But to prove Stier's point, two Cabinet Secretaries, Janet Napolitano and Shaun Donovan, and the man responsible for the responses to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and now the Deepwater Horizon explosion, Thad Allen, showed up to present awards for their employees. And the audience included agency heads like Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry and acting Office of Management and Budget Director Jeff Zients; business leaders like United Technologies Corporation CEO Louis Chenevert and DuPont CEO Ellen J. Kullman; philanthropists including Rockefeller Foundation president Dr. Judith Rodin; politicians like House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Sen. Ben Cardin; and major Washington players in other areas including the Atlantic's editor, James Bennet, Debra and Ed Cohen two of the principal owners of the Washington Nationals, and Judge Florence Pan of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia—who just happens to be Stier's wife.

Absent for the first time, however, was Samuel J. Heyman, the businessman who founded the partnership, and whose backing helped it become a significant force in government management in just nine years. Heyman passed away last November, and Stier announced that the awards ceremony will be named for him, and that the organization "will do everything in our power to continue to make his vision a reality."


OPM director Berry delivered a message from President Obama to the guests, who assembled at the Andrew W. Mellon auditorium, telling them on Obama's behalf that "the collective effort of dedicated civil servants lays the foundation for America's prosperity and ensures a better future for our children."

Numerous speakers emphasized the need to appreciate government employees at a time when it is politically popular to attack government in general. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano praised Pius Bannis, an immigration officer who helped expedite more than a thousand adoptions of Haitian children by American parents in the wake of January's devastating earthquake, saying "when we put out the call for the best and the brightest to bring their dedication to public service we can only help someone like Pius Bannis will answer." Among the families he helped were the Leblancs, from Herndon, Va., who had been waiting for years to adopt the three children who are now a part of their family, and were on hand to thank him personally.

It wasn't the only moment of the evening that swelled deep emotions. Teri Glass and the Army Medical Support Systems Team, based out of Fort Detrick in Frederick, Md., said they were stunned even to be finalists for their work equipping military vehicles with evacuation and stabilization equipment to help improve soldiers' chances of surviving battlefield wounds until they can be moved to safer hospitals.

"It is not just a nine-to-five job for us," Glass said. 

But the night was not without levity, either. When he came to the stage to present the Homeland Security Medal to Sandra Brooks, who won for her work intercepting drug shipments coming into the United States by submarine, former Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen received a standing ovation, only to declare, deadpan "I am not the awardee," and to insist that when "the drug cartels feel a disturbance in the Force, it is due to Sandy 'Obi-Wan' Brooks."

Brooks, in turn, joked that she is "so, so thankful for being a federal service employee, because after seeing the video [celebrating her accomplishments] tonight, Hollywood is not coming knocking at my door."

So perhaps Stier is right. Washington will never be Hollywood, and the medal recipients may not pose on the red carpet. But their speeches at the podium don't go on forever, and unlike actors and actresses, the work they get their awards for goes far beyond the screen.

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