In many ways, Thursday night’s 156th annual Portland Regional Chamber Awards Dinner was all business. The attire of choice was dark suits and white shirts, smart phones were a required accessory and the cocktail “hour” wrapped up a good 10 minutes shy of 60, as everyone was ushered into the ballroom at the Holiday Inn by the Bay in Portland for a three-course dinner.

But in other ways the event sported a playful side. It began with a bagpiper who marched through the reception to alert the more than 500 guests that it was time for dinner. The lighthearted theme continued with a video roast of outgoing Chamber Board Chair Jim Harnden, of Malone Commercial Brokers.

The video, billed as the Chamber Sports Network, employed some clever Photoshopping and video splicing skills to pit Harnden against Tiger Woods in The Masters tournament. Following many digs at Harnden’s golf game and a quip about Woods’ preference for threesomes, the video ended with Harnden victorious.

When the lights came back up, Chamber CEO Godfrey Wood presented Harden with a green sportcoat that from afar looked like a decent match for the jackets worn by The Masters champions, but which Wood admitted was a lucky Goodwill find.

After introducing the assembled who’s who of Greater Portland business leaders to new Chamber Board Chair Anne Gauthier, of National Semiconductor, Wood got the awards ceremony under way.

Art Dillon, who won last year’s Volunteer of the Year Award, came to the stage to present this year’s prize.

While the other award winners were notified in advance, the Volunteer of the Year is always a surprise. And this year’s award went to Susan Pye, of Merrill Lynch, who has been extremely active with PROPEL, the young professional branch of the chamber, including organizing its Entreverge awards ceremony this year.

Before the award was announced I chatted with Pye and then took a photo of her and Sarah Kutzen, of Vont Web Marketing. Being a good sport about my picture snapping ways, Pye joked that she has a running competition with a friend to see who can get the most mentions in the paper. She had no idea she was about to be honored.

Next up at the podium was Gregg Piasio, of Bangor Savings Bank, who presented the Robert R. Masterton Award for Leadership in Economic Development to the University of New England, which opened the state’s first pharmacy school a year ago.

UNE President Danielle Ripich accepted the award on behalf of the university, and she told the crowd that the institution’s next goal is to open a dental college in 2012.

When presenting the Henri A. Benoit Award for Leadership in the Private Sector to MaineHealth, TD Bank President Larry Wold pointed out that when he first looked at the list of past winners of this award, he was struck by how long it has been given out. Then he realized the award was first given in 1977, the year Wold graduated from high school and he decided it hasn’t been that long after all.

MaineHealth President Bill Caron accepted the honor on behalf of the organization, marking the first time a nonprofit has won the award.

The President’s Award went to Richard Connor, who is the editor and publisher of MaineToday Media, which owns the Portland Press Hearld/Maine Sunday Telegram, for his work in reviving the chain of newspapers. Jim Erwin, a partner at Pierce Atwood, presented the award.

“What a difference a year makes,” Erwin told the crowd.

Before Connor purchased the paper, Erwin said, “We sputtered about what wasn’t being covered. What we weren’t talking about was what’s in the paper. Now we are.”

For his part, Connor expressed his gratitude, but said he thought it was too early for him to win such an award.

“I really think our best days are ahead of us,” Connor said.

The evening’s final honor, the Neal W. Allen Award for Leadership in the Public Sector, went to Gov. John Baldacci, who has led our state for the past eight years after a long career in public service that began at the Bangor City Council and included stints in the state Legislature and U.S. Congress.

In presenting the award, Gerard Conley, the board chair of the Maine Turnpike Authority, got a big laugh when he said, “I had the privilege of serving with him in the Maine Legislature when he had more hair and I had less chins.”

Baldacci kept the humor going by noting that being the last speaker is a tough gig and comparing it to being Elizabeth Taylor’s eighth husband.

“You know what to do, but it’s hard to keep it interesting,” Baldacci joked.

However, the evening’s actual last speaker was Tom Chappell, who delivered a keynote address about how he and his wife, Kate Chappell, built Tom’s of Maine and now Ramblers Way Farm sustainable apparel company based on the belief that businesses can and should be environmentally sensitive and socially responsible.

When it was his turn at the microphone, Chappell promised to keep his remarks short, saying “If you’re like me, you’re thinking about when can we head home.”

He lived up to the promise with a brief but lively talk that included showing us a funny photo of him dressed up in a toothpaste costume taken years ago at a Maine Public Television benefit.

The party ended when Wood presented Chappell with a half-dozen eggs from Wood’s own free-range chickens.

It was a natural close to the season’s biggest business event. 

Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at:

[email protected]