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2019 Dayton Walk Of Fame Inductees Honored In Ceremony

Left to right: RoNita Hawes-Saunders, Debbie Blunden-Diggs, Jesse Gooding Jr., Betsy Whitney, and John Gower.
Jerry Kenney
Left to right: RoNita Hawes-Saunders, Debbie Blunden-Diggs, Jesse Gooding Jr., Betsy Whitney, and John Gower.

Three Miami Valley civic leaders and one of the city’s top arts organizations have been inducted into the Dayton Regional Walk of Fame. The 2019 inductees were honored at the annual ceremony Thursday at Sinclair College.

This year’s honorees include civil-rights leader Jesse Gooding Jr., entrepreneur John Gower, philanthropists Betsy and Lee Whitney, and the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company.

Jesse Gooding was the longest serving president of the Dayton NAACP. He was honored for his fight to end discrimination in education, employment, housing, and law enforcement.

"Well, my family is just elated, and I'm elated," he says. "The fact that I'll be among some of the real pioneers of great people. It's a real honor to be out there with them. I don't know that I deserve it, but I sure appreciate it."

Gooding says others joined him in his fight for civil rights at a time, he says very few African-Americans were hired by downtown businesses.

Changes that the city of Dayton has undergone is reflected in lives of each of the Walk of Fame inductees this year. In fact, it has been a central part of John Gower's lifelong work in urban development, which he says, came to him at a young age.

"I remember my folks driving us around when I was five, six, seven years old," he recalls. "Every Sunday, we'd go out, drive around the city and look at the neighborhoods. I grew up when they were demolishing all the buildings downtown for urban renewal and the freeways, and at that time, I thought that was so cool... And I was smitten, I mean, I didn't realize this, but by the time I was through with high school and headed to college, I'd fallen hopelessly in love with this place."

Walk of Fame recipients, Betsy and Lee Whitney, were inducted into the walk of fame, in large part, for their support of the arts in Dayton. Betsy grew up in Yellow Springs and has lived in Dayton since 1954. She says even in tough times, the city has managed to move forward.

“I think people always sort of rise to the occasion and new things happen,” she says. “The combination of the arts, DPAA, dance, ballet, opera and the Philharmonic is a wonderful thing. They always go to the schools and teach work with the kids. There's lots of new art going on for all ages, which I think is important. The library, I think, is filling a very important spot downtown, and in the region with all their new buildings.”

The organization credited with sharing Dayton’s art and culture with audiences world-wide is the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, honored for its 50 years of cultural performance art at home and abroad.

The dance company was founded in 1968 by Jeraldyne Blunden, who was herself inducted into the walk of fame in 1999. Since its founding the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company has performed in countries around the world - Chili, China, Russia, Kazakhstan, and others.

DCDC CEO, RoNita Hawes-Saunders and Debbie Blunden-Diggs, chief artistic administrator and producing director, accepted the award for the dance company.

Blunden-Diggs, the founder’s daughter, says that when the company tours abroad, they take Dayton with them, not only in their name, but in spirit as well.

“As we travel from place to place, there's just this energy and synergy that travels with us, and we talk about Dayton being a great place to be, a great place to live, how rich our arts community is. And so, you know, there’s no place like home. There's no place like the Victoria Theater stage, and we're stepping into year 51 and we're really excited about where the company will soar off to.”

Hawes-Saunders echoed that sentiment in her speech to the large audience in attendance at Sinclair’s Ponitz Center for the ceremony.

“I can talk about it from the heart and I can talk about it from the spirit and soul, which our artists work each and every day to bring this community, this nation and this world - exceptional art on a continuous basis.” 

With Thursday’s ceremony complete, 180 Dayton area residents, leader, and changemakers have now been inducted into the regional walk of fame - an annual event that began in 1996.

The Dayton walk of fame is located along West Third Street between Shannon and Broadway Streets in the historic Wright-Dunbar Business District.

Jerry Kenney was introduced to WYSO by a friend and within a year of first tuning in became an avid listener and supporter. He began volunteering at the station in 1991 and began hosting Alpha Rhythms in February of 1992. Jerry joined the WYSO staff in 2007 as a host of All Things Considered and soon transitioned into hosting Morning Edition. In addition to now hosting All Things Considered, Jerry is the host and producer of WYSO Weekend, WYSO's weekly news and arts magazine. He has also produced several radio dramas for WYSO in collaboration with local theater companies. Jerry has won several Ohio AP awards as well as an award from PRINDI for his work with the WYSO news department. Jerry says that the best part of his job is being able to talk to people in the community and share their experiences with WYSO listeners.