Dedication to a better society drives recipients of 2020 William Pynchon Award

Elizabeth Wills-O’Gilvie and Janine Fondon share a passion for food.

For Wills-O’Gilvie, it’s food to nourish the body. For Fondon, it’s food for thought and knowledge for the growth of the mind.

Each recipient of the prestigious 2020 William Pynchon Award drew from family experience and from observations of society to fuel their passion. Wills-O’Gilvie and Fondon will be recognized by the Advertising Club of Western Massachusetts, which bestows an award whose tradition dates back to 1915.

“For more than 100 years, including during the 1918 flu pandemic, the Ad Club has recognized those who have made an outstanding impact on our communities,” said Scott Whitney, chairman of the Trustees of the Order of William Pynchon.

“As a board of trustees, we believe it is even more appropriate to celebrate their generosity and community spirit during times of crisis and unrest. This year’s recipients exemplify the very best we can be as neighbors and leaders in our respective communities.”

The 2020 coronavirus pandemic has slowed the economy and many aspects of ordinary life, but it has not slowed down either Wills-O’Gilvie or Fondon, whose inexhaustible energy is, if anything, more motivated by recent events.

The women will receive their Pynchon Award honors at an event scheduled for October 2021.

Wills-O’Gilvie is a longtime community activist for good nutrition and healthy eating, and a tireless advocate for Gardening the Community and the Springfield Food Policy Council. Fondon serves as co-founder of Unity First, a distributor of diversity-related e-news.

Fondon is chair of the undergraduate communications department at Bay Path University. Her focus is to educate citizens on the diverse voices of history, throughout the Pioneer Valley and the nation.

In collaboration with Drs. Demetria Shabazz and Lucie K. Lewis, she serves as guest curator of an exhibit for the Springfield Museums entitled “Voices of Resilience: The Intersection of Women on the Move.” The exhibit tells the stories of local women, particularly women of color, who have changed the course of history.

Asked what inspires her efforts, Wills-O’Gilvie recalled an incident witnessed by her husband, who was an assistant principal at the High School of Commerce in Springfield.

“A kid was facing suspension for shouting at a teacher. He said he was asking to go to the cafeteria, because he hadn’t eaten since the night before,’’ she said.

Such experiences put Wills-O’Gilvie on a mission to make sure children and families, and especially those from underserved or lower-income areas, had access to not just enough food, but healthy food.

She said she understands why the term “food insecurity” has slipped into our lexicon, but has no problem calling it by its traditional name: hunger.

“It’s important that we tell the truth about this. The shame is not with those who are hungry, but in society for allowing this to exist. I can’t go around throwing food at people, so I work with improving systems to give them access,” she said.

One ally turned out to be Robert Bolduc, the owner of the Pride store chain. Wills-O’Gilvie relentlessly worked to convince Bolduc that Pride should offer nourishing, quality food.

“I drove Bob crazy for years, but thankfully, he and I became good friends. He was not as responsive at first, but he was, very much so, at the end,’’ Wills-O’Gilvie said.

It bothers her deeply that Hampden County has the lowest health rankings of any county in Massachusetts, just as it bothers her how many people mistakenly believe high rates of hypertension and childhood diabetes among people of color are genetic traits, when it fact it’s due to lack of access to healthy food.

“I understand the impact of food. If we can change eating habits, we could change health in five years,” she said.

Wills-O’Gilvie is involved with Gardening the Community, an organization that operates a training program for youth to grow fruits and vegetables on vacant and abandoned lots. Its emphasis is on youth leadership and racial equity.

She now serves as chair of the organization’s Board of Directors, and has led efforts to purchase land in the community to build a greenhouse, allowing food to be grown year-round.

Wills-O’Gilvie was also a leader behind the Walnut Street Community Farm Store, where people in the neighborhood can buy locally grown, pesticide-free and affordable fruits and vegetables.

Fondon was inspired by her family heritage to promote awareness of the role of African-Americans, other minorities and women in the American experience. These are stories only recently gaining attention after generations of history lessons through primarily a white and male-dominated lens.

“I try to provide a lot of context. Everybody is curious about where they came from,” Fondon said. “‘They wonder, why haven’t we been told?’ All of this is history.”

Her own heritage speaks to this history. Her father belonged to the Mountford Point Marines, who integrated the U.S. Marine Corps in the 1940s, and was also a voracious reader and history buff.

“He loved history. He drove a subway train in New York after his service, and when he cleaned the cars, he’d pick up publications that were left — he lived in newspapers. I don’t know if he realized how much a part of history he was,” said Fondon, whose husband was also a Marine.

Fondon’s aunt was Irene Morgan Kirkaldy, one of the most unsung heroes of the Civil Rights Movement. Nine years before Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her seat on a bus in Alabama, Irene Morgan won a 1946 U.S. Supreme Court verdict involving a similar bus incident in Virginia.

Fondon also considers herself fortunate to have lived or worked in New York, Boston, and Washington, D.C., where the cities’ rich histories whetted her intellectual appetite. This encouraged her as a writer, speaker and co-founder of Unity First, a company that shares diversity-related content with a national and international audience of more than 500,000 people.

The Pynchon medal bears the name of Springfield’s founder, whose life and achievements typify the ideals of promoting citizenship and the building of a better community, Whitney said. Recipients are presented with a bronze medal bearing Pynchon’s likeness and inscribed with the quotation: “They honor us whom we honor.”

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