One of the last things the American Lung Association wants to hear is "You've Come A Long Way, Baby." The 1978 Virginia Slims slogan, targeted to an emerging class of professional women, sold untold millions of cigarettes to previously non-smoking teenage girls.
But it's still tempting to say it about Chattanooga's 26-year-old American Lung Association fundraiser, the Women of Distinction awards. Begun in 1985 as a tribute to the city's style mavens, it now celebrates the most powerful - and charitable - women in town.
This year, the program expands again. Four outstanding high school seniors will receive Young Women of Distinction awards. The fledgling honorees include a track star, medical intern, global leadership educator and women's health advocate.
"They have a wealth of knowledge, skills and talents, and they are so smart," says June Scobee Rodgers, a 1995 Tennessee Woman of Distinction and founding chairman of the internationally recognized Challenger Center. "With their impressive social media networks, they also have a major outreach."
Over the years, the Women of Distinction program has raised many thousands of dollars for anti-smoking, anti-lung disease and anti-asthma initiatives while building its own intricate webbing of more than 250 honorees. The awards program's popularity, though, nearly outshines its philanthropic point. "It's taken on a life of its own," says Shirley Cudabac, development director for the American Lung Association's Chattanooga office. "It kicks off and goes - and we just hold our breath and hang on."
When Maxine Alper was named a Woman of Distinction in 1985, she thought the award "a little silly." "I didn't think it was the thing to do - honoring somebody for being well-dressed," she says.
She recalls an offended Chattanooga woman's letter to the editor, summing up the reaction of some citizens to news reports of the event at that time. "She wrote 'of course they're the best-dressed women in Chattanooga -they're so wealthy they can afford those fancy clothes,'" recalls Alper. "I wanted to respond that, well, it just so happens that the things the girls honored me for were hand-made - I had knitted them myself."
As so often happens, the coup de grace landed at lunch. In the early 1990s, longtime organizers- Helen Exum, Jean Stansell and Jimmy Lou Rye among them - asked Rodgers, a Chattanooga newcomer, to help draft a revised program over chicken salad and pecan pie.
Rodgers, an educator and well-connected nonprofit founder, had recently delivered a speech to elite Middle Eastern women on the topic of volunteerism. "I told them that they don't have to be political leaders or make policy to influence their countries," says Rodgers. "Women can make a difference as volunteers."
By the time dessert was served, three new award criteria had been suggested: volunteer activities, inspiration for others and leadership. A new category, the Tennessee Woman of Distinction, was also added.
A George H.W. Bush family friend, Rodgers also invited Barbara Bush's Chief-of-Staff, Susan Porter Rose, to be a keynote speaker. "This brought national attention to our program," she notes. Soon, dignitaries such as Congresswoman Marilyn Lloyd and Olympian Venus Lacy were receiving awards. A tradition of tapping prior winners for keynote speeches also began. Tennessee Woman of Distinction for 2009, Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Tennessee CEO Vicky Gregg, will give the address this year.
Then, the dinner galas gave way to business-style lunches. Long acceptance speeches were replaced by short video resumes. "We began to see the leadership qualities and influence of these women in our city," says Rodgers. "And people could come in from their jobs, have a wonderful lunch, honor the ladies and get back to work."
At 26, the Women of Distinction program has come of age. Now, its organizers are focusing on its legacy. Last fall, for example, four advisors met with a panel of 10 high school girls to design a new Young Woman of Distinction Award. Among the qualities the teen panelists desired to see in a candidate were "honor, enthusiasm, generosity, compassion, willingness to take risks and a dedication to goal achievement," says Richardia "Rickie" Pierce, an advisor and retired Girls Preparatory School administrator. "The panelists' hopes were certainly ambitious."
Nisha Boyington, an 18-year-old Girls Preparatory School student, will receive one of those awards, partly to honor her development of a citywide global leadership course. Her mother, Thinking Media founder Sheila Boyington will also be recognized as a Chattanooga Woman of Distinction. "I'm very honored," says Boyington, "and sharing that with my mother is even more exciting - it's a dream come true."
Growing up in rural Alabama, girls were banned from algebra class, recalls Rodgers. Today, after earning a doctoral degree, writing an autobiography and commanding an international nonprofit for a quarter-century, her life and the lives of most American women, has been transformed. So, too, has the Women of Distinction program evolved with the changing times. "We have so many women in Chattanooga and in our nation now who are CEOs and political leaders," says Rodgers. "We've come a long way."