WATSONVILLE—When asked how he and his wife got their start in education, Lowell Hurst responded with a modest, self-deprecating answer synonymous with the longtime politician and educator.
“Some people suggested, well, ‘Wendy, you’re bilingual, you’ve got a teaching credential, and, Lowell, we’re really not sure about you,’” he said as loud laughs filled the J.J. Crosetti Building at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds.
Lowell and Wendy Hurst were given the Pajaro Valley Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture’s Lifetime Achievement award at Saturday’s awards gala for their more than six decades of service in education, politics and volunteerism.
The couple first arrived in Watsonville in 1978. Wendy became one of Pajaro Valley Unified School District’s first bilingual teachers and Lowell, thanks to his agriculture degree, started his long career as an agricultural science and horticulture teacher that same year.
Since then, the two have branched out to public service, with Lowell serving three times on the city council and in the role of mayor. Wendy, meanwhile, has been a Court Appointed Special Advocate for many years. She is also active in Soroptimist International of Watsonville and Girls Inc., an organization that encourages girls ages 5-18 to live an active and healthy lifestyle.
Lowell’s playful response was par for the course for the four-hour ceremony, which welcomed more than 250 people and featured musical performances from singer, songwriter and musician Andy Vargas and his father, Javier.
The Pajaro Valley Chamber also honored the following:
- Renee Mello, Woman of the Year: A broker with Keller Williams, Mello was recently awarded Realtor of the Year in Santa Cruz County. She has been a part of numerous organizations and events, including the Santa Cruz County Association of Realtors, Freedom Rotary, the Crab Feed, Holiday Lights and the Pajaro Valley Chamber of Commerce.
- Ken Schwan, Man of the Year: The former owner of Monterey Bay Caterers, Schawn was one of the first to help organize the first Evening of Wine and Roses and other events for the Community Health Trust of the Pajaro Valley and also helped start the galas at Notre Dame and St. Francis schools. He has done fundraisers for the Diabetes Foundation, Agricultural History Project, Pajaro Valley Chamber of Commerce, the Pajaro Valley Historical Association, the Rogers House, the YWCA, the Watsonville Fly-In and more. Through the years, Schwan has hired many teens and adults from Teen Challenge and other adult-in-need services and programs in our community.
- Driscoll’s, Business of the Year: The international berry company has been a long-time contributor to various community initiatives such as Salud Para La Gente’s Sunday clinic hours, an effort that allowed their employees and other people in the Pajaro Valley to receive the health care they need. Driscoll’s also gave $1.75 million to help complete the purchase of Watsonville Community Hospital.
- Community Foundation Santa Cruz County, Organization of the Year: The foundation manages more than $200 million in charitable assets and provides customized giving solutions that resulted in more than $24 million in grants in 2021. It has provided more than $10 million in relief during the pandemic, the majority in South County. This includes grants and loans to small businesses and rental assistance and other help for workers.
- City of Watsonville Santa Tour, Event of the Year: Organized by the Watsonville Parks and Community Services Department, the Santa Tour brings Jolly Old St. Nicholas and his elves to different areas of the city. It was created to bring joy to the community as Covid-19 restrictions put the kibosh on many holiday activities. “Santa” kicked off the inaugural tour in 2020 by flying in from the North Pole to Ramsay Park in a helicopter, then joined his wife on an antique fire engine for the tour.
A common theme for the night was the ongoing push to save Watsonville Community Hospital, which was facing closure last year before the Pajaro Valley Healthcare District Project stepped forward to purchase it. Both Driscoll’s CEO Miles Reiter and Community Foundation Santa Cruz County CEO Susan True mentioned the effort in their remarks, asking the public to close the final gap of the $67 million fundraising goal—a joint letter from Pajaro Valley business leaders said there is still $7.8 million left to be raised before the end of the month.