It was a bit strange to not see Ernest Gaines sitting on the stage of the Manship Theatre at the Literary Award event named in his honor.

The theater was packed for the Jan. 30 event, the first since Gaines death in November. His life was perfectly captured in the remarks by competition judge and author Anthony Grooms. He said Gaines once told him he wanted his epitaph to be “He was a good man who wrote well.”

This year’s Ernest J. Gaines Literary Award for Excellence winner, chosen from among hundreds of entries from throughout the world, was Byron Washington, who won for his short story collection “Lot.” In addition to a specially commissioned commemorative sculpture, Washington received $15,000 from the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, which presents the award.

Washington read a few selections from his book, which had us laughing at times, tearing up at others. 

Earlier in the week, Washington visited local schools that participated in the Baton Rouge Area Foundation’s student author competition. This year’s topic, chosen by Gaines before his death, asked students to write about a fictional character they would like to meet.

Taking first-place for elementary students was Samara Bryan, a fifth grader at Buchannan Elementary, who chose Sound of Running Feet; second place went to Kiristyn Offord, a fifth grader at Park Forest Elementary, who chose Percy Jackson; and third place to Ronnie Sekharan, a fourth grader at Highland Elementary, who chose Harry Potter.

Middle school winners were: first place Phillip Stevens, a sixth grader at Sherwood Middle School, who chose Holden Caulfield from “Catcher in the Rye”; second place Carliyah Carr, a sixth grader at Scotlandville Middle, who chose Bruno from “The Boy in the Stripped Pajamas”; and third place Z’Yana Owens, seventh grader at Glen Oaks Middle, who chose Mr. Peabody of the “Mr. Peabody & Sherman” cartoon show.

At the high school level, first place went to Charlie Roth, a junior at Episcopal School, who chose Felix Hoenikker from Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle”; second place to Faith Woods, a senior at St. Joseph’s Academy, who chose Atticus Finch from “To Kill a Mockingbird”; and third to Madison Roy, a senior St. Joseph’s Academy, who chose Hamlet.

Serving with Grooms on the judges’ panel were Edward P. Jones, Elizabeth Nunez, Francine Prose and Patricia Towers. Mary Ann Sternberg chairs this annual event; Lynn Mitchell oversees the student competition.

Alzheimer’s Services

Earlier on Jan. 30, I joined Alzheimer’s Services at a luncheon at Drusilla Place honoring its many dedicated volunteers. Welcoming everyone was board President James Baker and Executive Director Barbara Auten, who said that in 2019 the volunteers donated some 4,500 hours equaling $114,000.

“You make a difference and allow us to continue our mission,” she said. “We are grateful for your time, your passion and your compassion.”

And those efforts are needed more and more every day as the baby boomers age, she said, adding that last year saw a 30% increase in demand for every service offered by the agency.

Among those recognized were this year’s Charlie Award recipients Effie Caston, Destiny Manzella and Suzanne Mayfield. This award recognizes volunteers for their outstanding contributions to Charlie’s Place respite center.

Receiving the Rosemary Award, which recognizes volunteers who go above and beyond and have dedicated a significant amount of time and service over several years, were Cheryl Payne and Ed Picard.

Recognized for 25 years of service were Gina Rossi and Dana Territo; 20 years of service — Charlie Lamar and Barbara Zellmer; 15 years — Errol Labat and Trish and Len Sedlin; 10 years — Janet Abernathy, Andrea Babin, Richard Daviet, Carol Fitch, Linda Melancon, Bonnie Pressler, Brittany Romig and Patricia Territo; and five years — George Balhoff, Betty Bourgeois, Pam Brown, Lois Hargrave, Tom Hawkins, Susan Lipsey, Manzella and Claudia McCall.

Antiques Forum

Also on Jan. 30, I stopped by the Baton Rouge Country Club for the Friends of Magnolia Mound Petite Antiques Forum luncheon. Guests of honor were speaker Claudia Kheel, an authority on Louisiana and Southern regional art who is currently serving as a adjunct professor at Tulane University; and Pat Bacot, who for some 40 years served as adviser and curator for the Friends group as they renovated Magnolia Mound Plantation.

Restaurant Association

The week started out at Rouj Creole at a lovely and fun dinner hosted by the Baton Rouge Chapter of the Louisiana Restaurant Association. You can never go wrong partying with foodies!

The highlight of the evening was the presentation of awards by chapter President Lisa Boudreaux-LeCoq, chef owner of the Gilded Artichoke. Stephen Hightower, with City Group Hospitality and the night’s host, was named Restaurateur of the Year. Brad Watts, owner of Cecilia Creole, Kalurah Street Grill and River Room Bar, was honored as the Active Member of the Year. And, Justin McDonald, owner of French Market Bistro and Mansurs on the Boulevard, received the Presidential Award.

Brad and Justin had bewildered looks on their faces as members of their family arrived right before the formal portion of the evening. Lisa had invited them to be there for the awards presentation, making for a truly special moment for all.

Epicurean Society

Speaking of good food, at a Jan. 16 luncheon, the Baton Rouge Epicurean Society announced that this year's recipient of its Grace "Mama" Marino Lifetime Achievement Award is Bill Pizzolato and family from Tony's Seafood.

Among those attending the luncheon at Gino’s Italian Restaurant were Bill's wife, Terry, and sister, Ceily Pizzolato Burkett, BRES President Jim Urdiales, and BRES Executive Committee members Gino Marino, Kelly Firesheets and Brian Dykes. The Mama Marino dinner is June 18 at the Renaissance Hotel.

Email Pam Bordelon at pbordelon@theadvocate.com.