The Athlete of the Year program had modest origins, as originally conceived by Ken Brooks and John Thompson in 1998 as an added feature for the annual Big Brothers Sports Celebrity dinner. An initial meeting was convened on February 1, 1999 in the Board Room of United Way serving Kitchener, Waterloo, Wellesley, Wilmot and Woolwich, in the Marsland Centre in Waterloo.
Thirteen community volunteers were in attendance – Bob Arnot, Tripho Bogias, Ken Brooks, Don Cameron, Dominic Cardillo, Pat Doherty, Wayne Gowing, Dennis Hartlieb, Jim Lavell, Stephen Menich, John Thompson, Roseanne Toronchuk and Jill White.
Input was received from current recognition programs including Cities of Cambridge, Kitchener and Waterloo, as well as the Kitchener Sports Association. It was agreed that an Athlete of the Year program had merit and a second meeting was held a week later with seven new potential volunteers attending including Randy Barrett, Gary Boug, Ed Davies, Jeff Maslanka, Rich Newbrough, Ted Scharf and Carl Totzke, and a subsequent meeting included Nancy Brawley, Gary Doyle, Ray Kipfer, Dave “Tuffy” Knight, Judie Lankowski, Evan Lauer and Bob McKillop.
An historic motion was carried unanimously – Jim Lavell moved and Ed Davies seconded that a committee organize a K-W Athlete of the Year program for 1999; that the program be part of the June 23, 1999 Big Brothers Celebrity dinner; and that the 1999 program be evaluated for the future immediately following the inaugural event.
Key decisions for the future included that there be one Athlete of the Year recipient for the first year; jurisdiction be Kitchener-Waterloo and the townships of Wellesley, Wilmot and Woolwich; award to be a distinctive art piece and placed on display at a permanent location and Rogers TV be invited to participate for Video production
The initial committee structure was agreed upon:
Chair – John Thompson Big Brothers Liaison – Ken Brooks
Awards & Sponsorship – Ed Davies (Chair); Pat Doherty (Vice), Carl Totzke
Video Production – Bob McKillop, (Chair); Don Cameron (Vice); Gary Doyle, Jim Lavell & Evan Lauer
Nominations & Selection – Rich Newbrough (Chair); Steve Menich (Vice); Randy Barrett, Gary Boug, Nancy Brawley, Dominic Cardillo, Ed Davies, Wayne Gowing, Chris Hodnett, Ian James, Dave “Tuffy” Knight, Judie Lankowski, Ted Scharf, Roseanne Toronchuk, Donna Weber.
Ed Davies confirmed that Civitan Sports Waterloo Region would serve as the sponsor for the award, and an attractive trophy was provided that is on display on the 2nd floor of the Kitchener Memorial Auditorium, complete with photos of recipients from every year.
The Athlete of the Year program continued for five years as part of the Sports Celebrity dinner. In 2002, Roseanne Toronchuck served as Chair and the Award of Excellence program for individuals was introduced, and expanded to the Awards of Excellence for organizations in 2003, and further expanded in 2008 to include teams.
In 2004, John Thompson returned as Chair, and the program became an event on its own, presented in Kitchener at The Aud, at RIM Park in Waterloo and at the Woolwich Community Centre in Elmira. Woodhouse Contracting Limited was the title sponsor and all financial proceeds were directed to Camp McGovern, the summer camp operated at that time by Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Kitchener-Waterloo. That format continued for eight years with in excess of $40,000 donated to Camp McGovern, which in due course, became an entity and charity on its own. In 2009 Jean Howitt was appointed as Chair of the program, a role she continues to fill.
In 2012, Kitchener Sports Association approved its role as Presenting Patron, providing funding to local charities and minor sports groups on behalf of each of the nominees and Awards of Excellence honorees. The venue became the May monthly meeting of KSA at the Edelweiss Sports Banquet Hall in Kitchener and in keeping with an initiative to move the event to various municipalities, the 2015 event was hosted by the Rotary Club of Wilmot in New Hamburg.
The May 17th, 2016 event celebrates the 18th annual program, and the Organizing Committee, with leadership from Moni Lagonia, Sue Taylor and Gary Kieswetter, is initiating plans for a special observance of the 20th annual celebration in 2018.