Tom Sasvari honoured with the Vivian Levensohn Award

Manitoulin Lodge activities director and the most recent Vivian Levensohn Award recipient Gloria Hall presents Tom Sasvari with a plaque for being the 2019 recipient of the volunteerism accolade. Mr. Sasvari, when not busily covering many community events for the Manitoulin West Recorder, gives back at events such as the monthly men’s breakfast held at the Lodge, where he was caught unawares last Friday.

GORE BAY – As friends and colleagues quietly gathered in the lobby outside the dining room of the Manitoulin Lodge, an unsuspecting Tom Sasvari went about his usual routine of helping to prepare the monthly men’s breakfast at the Lodge, just as he has done for most of the past two decades. It isn’t often that the Manitoulin West scribe finds himself caught off-guard or centred out as the main subject of a story but on Friday, February 21 the Manitoulin West Recorder scribe’s selfless devotion to one of his many acts of volunteerism prevented him from realizing that, that day, it was he who was the man of the hour. He was ‘caught in the act of volunteering,’ as one person commented.

Even as Gloria Hall, the most recent recipient of the Vivian Levensohn Award for Community Volunteerism approached the microphone stand bearing the wooden plaque upon which is inscribed the names of Manitoulin Island’s most esteemed volunteers, Mr. Sasvari was still struggling to rush out of the room to secure his camera and notepad, dismayed that he had been caught without them as clearly, important events were about to unfold. Little did he know that he was about to be the centre of attention.

“Tom has been described as a ‘good and faithful friend,’” said Ms. Hall as she began the citation for the award. “He is a person in our community whose presence is always uplifting and he is very knowledgeable on many topics.”

Ms. Hall told the audience that “Tom was born in Hungary” causing the detail-oriented Mr. Sasvari to correct the record as, although his family originated in that country, Mr. Sasvari was born in Sault Ste. Marie. A wag from the audience piped up with “you mean he was born hungry.” Such gentle ribbing is a near-constant wherever and whenever Mr. Sasvari appears at an event, a reminder of the fondness with which Mr. Sasvari is held by the community and something that he stoically endures with good and gentle humour.

“The Sault’s loss is now our gain,” recovered Ms. Hall. “Tom has lived on Manitoulin for many years and he has spent those years reporting and volunteering. He graduated from Canadore College in North Bay with a degree in journalism, but not a degree in handwriting (referencing Mr. Sasvari’s famous furious scrawl) which is illegible to most—keeping his words secret until put to print.”

Ms. Hall noted that in addition to his monthly kitchen duties at the monthly men’s breakfast, Mr. Sasvari makes time to volunteer with many other groups.

Mr. Sasvari, left, enjoys a slice of his celebratory ‘Cinnabundt’ cake (made by Heather Nodecker) while former Manitoulin Publishing Co. owner Rick McCutcheon admires the storied list of past Vivian Levensohn Award recipients. photos by Michael Erskine

“We are so lucky to have Tom in our community, if it weren’t for his time spent reporting and promoting happenings, many of the valuable organizations and events would not be as successful as what they are. Tom makes a difference.”

Ms. Hall noted that, if not found upon the links, Mr. Sasvari helps out at the golf course where ever he can, as well as the Royal Canadian Legion, the Rotary Club, hockey, curling, the fish and game clubs, “you name it, he’s there. You never know where or when you will run into this energetic, dedicated, caring and concerned man, but make sure to say ‘hi’ and let him know how much we appreciate him.”

Ms. Hall read a letter of congratulations from Angel Bus coordinator Sandy Cook, who referenced his support of that organization and praised his “in-depth reporting” on all of the major events taking place in Island communities.

Representing the Gore Bay Lions Club, Lion Miriam Wailes spoke of Mr. Sasvari’s 30 years in Lionism. “A volunteer is someone who does not expect a reward, who does not get paid, does things for the community or for a person because they love them. The First Commandment is love, it’s in two parts, love God and love your neighbour. Who is your neighbour? It is anybody who needs some help. Tom is a good neighbour, a good volunteer and we thank him.”

“I think it is about 18 to 20 years you have been helping with the Men’s Breakfast,” said organizer Bill Baker (to continue the ruse, Mr. Sasvari had been led to believe Mr. Baker was the intended recipient of the award). “As organizers, we really appreciate it.” Mr. Baker went on to cite the nonplussed reporter as “Mr. Men’s Breakfast.” 

Jo-Ellen Sloss spoke on behalf of the Rotary Club of Gore Bay. “Although Tom is a member of a fellow service club in our area, we have had many opportunities to partner on many joint fundraising events and Tom is very dedicated and willing to assist in any way that he can to ensure a successful outcome. Tom has assisted our organization to kickstart all of our fundraising events. This recognition could not be awarded to a more deserving individual. Thank you for everything you do for our club and for the Manitoulin community.”

Former Manitoulin Publishing Company owner Rick McCutcheon presented a congratulatory card from the company to Mr. Sasvari and then read out the inscription within.

“Yours is clearly a labour of love,” he said, recalling a quarter-century ago when The Expositor was a friendly rival to the Recorder and Mr. McCutcheon had sounded out Mr. Sasvari for the role of editor of The Expositor. Although the position would have meant a rise in salary, Mr. Sasvari declined the offer to remain at the helm of his beloved Recorder. “Above all, Tom is completely loyal to his community. This is a very appropriate award. Everything everyone has said is so true. We are pleased to have had the association we have had for the past 20 years.” Mr. McCutcheon had composed a tongue-in-cheek Limerick for the occasion which he read to the award winner:

There once was a reporter called Tom,

The epitome of Vivian Levensohn.

When named for her award, Tom cried ‘Oh my word!’

‘They think my job is a voluntary one!’

“You are the epitome of community journalism,” said current Manitoulin Publishing owner and editor of The Manitoulin Expositor Alicia McCutcheon. “You are so deserving of this award, congratulations.”

“I am not much for speeches,” said Mr. Sasvari with his trademark bashful glance about, as it came to time for his acceptance remarks, “um, wow, I certainly didn’t expect this.” Laughter and back and forth banter in response was extended for a few moments.

“I look at the list of names here,” Mr. Sasvari continued, gazing down on the bronze plates on the award plaque. “It’s an incredible list. To be mentioned on the same things is…wow. I don’t know what to say…thank you very much, thank you,” prompting someone to call out incredulously, “Tom’s at a loss for words!”

“Who would imagine Tom speechless?” supplied Lion Miriam.

Manitoulin Lodge volunteer co-ordinator Phyllis Cacciotti rescued Mr. Sasvari from the microphone to say a few concluding remarks before the serving of the cake.

“I want to thank him for being here for our Men’s Breakfast and all of the events, being present here for all of our silliness,” she said. “I want to thank him, it means a lot to us.”

The Vivian Levensohn Award for an annual Manitoulin Island volunteer was established in 1986 by the local board of the old Network North mental health agency to honour Vivian Levensohn who had done much useful contract work for the local agency and was, at that time, relocating to the US with her physician husband Terry Williamson. Ms. Levensohn got to name the first recipient (Mary Buie) and from then on, it became part of each recipient’s job to choose the next winner.

From the outset, this award has been presented as a surprise (just like the one made to Mr. Sasvari) so part of the planning typically involves a ruse to get the winner to a particular place at a particular time, all in great good fun.

Mr. Sasvari’s Expositor colleagues Warren Schlote and Michael Erskine were also on hand to shout “surprise!”