August 14, 2009

Six to be honored at Inspiring Women Gala

by Emily Britton

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Six women who have made significant professional contributions and served as role models in their communities will be honored during the sixth annual Inspiring Women Gala on Saturday, Oct. 17, in the Southern Illinois University Carbondale Student Center Ballrooms and International Lounge.

This year's Inspiring Women of Achievement award recipients are Helen Deniston of Carbondale, Kathleen Brown Fralish of Carbondale, Rebecca Mitchell of Ridgway, Dorothy Wilbourn Spomer of Cairo, and Bonnie Wheeler of Carterville. Betty L. Brennan of Rantoul will receive the 2009 Alumna Achievement Award.

"An Evening with the Stars" begins with a reception and silent auction at 5:30 p.m., followed by the dinner and the program at 7 p.m. A live auction follows the presentation of the awards. Reservations for the Gala may be purchased for $65 per person. For more information, visit the Inspiring Women Web site at

Proceeds from the Gala benefit Inspiring Women Scholarships, awarded to SIUC freshmen students who demonstrate academic achievement, leadership and extracurricular involvement. Scholarship winners for this academic year will also be honored at the Gala.

Larry Dietz, vice chancellor for student affairs, created the Inspiring Women program, which is associated with the Southern Illinois University Foundation.

Here is more information on this year’s recipients:

• Deniston has devoted her life to the city of Carbondale. She has served as a volunteer to the Elk’s Children’s Christmas Program, Memorial Hospital Special Care Nursery, Alzheimer’s Association, Easter Seals Society, American Cancer Society, American Lung Association, Jackson County Mental Health Department, Memorial Hospital Auxiliary, American Heart Association, Mother’s March of Dimes, National Multiple Sclerosis Society, and Carbondale Junior Sports.

Due to her tireless volunteerism, Deniston was named Carbondale Chamber of Commerce Citizen of the Year, and also earned the City of Carbondale Good Neighbor Award. She was also recognized for her outstanding volunteer contributions by the State of Illinois, among other honors. When not devoting her time to members of her community, Deniston works to preserve the history of her city. She conducts voluntary speaking engagements on her community and conducts walking tours of Carbondale’s historic sites.

• Fralish is a graduate of SIUC, with a doctorate in speech pathology and audiology. She co-founded and served as president of the Center for Comprehensive Services, the first-ever hospital rehabilitation program in the country for persons with brain injury. She is known internationally as an expert and presenter in the field of brain injury rehabilitation, winning many honors such as the prestigious Sheldon Berrol Clinical Services Award from the Brain Injury Association of America and the James Brady Award from the Illinois Head Injury Association. Fralish is president of the American Congress of Rehabilitation Medicine and charter member and chairperson of the Brain Injury Interdisciplinary Special Interest Group of the organization.

In addition to her successful career, Fralish is committed to mentoring students and colleagues. She has served on local boards, including Southern Illinois Healthcare, Shawnee Health Services, and the Boys and Girls Club of Carbondale. She is also the founder and charter board member of Carbondale Soccer, Inc., Southern Illinois Audubon Society, and Green Earth. Her efforts on behalf of her community have been recognized through her selection as a Leader Among Us by the Southern Business Journal, and the receipt of the Athena Award from the Carbondale Chamber of Commerce and Distinguished Alumni Award from SIUC.

• As mayor of Ridgway, Mitchell is the first woman to serve in any capacity on the village’s board. She accepted the position after her husband, whose name originally appeared on the ballot, unexpectedly passed away in 2007.

Mitchell earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education from SIUC. She taught elementary school for 33 years. She recently assisted six economically disadvantaged youths with training and work experience for the summer. On behalf of her community, Mitchell sought out and acquired wireless high-speed Internet for Ridgway and surrounding areas. She was appointed in 2008 to the project team with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to work on conversion of the Flood Insurance Rate maps to countywide digital format and by FEMA to a planning team to develop a Gallatin County multi-hazard mitigation plan.

Mitchell’s desire to help others also extended beyond Southern Illinois when she travelled with the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief team to provide relief to hurricane victims, and with the Carpenters in Christ Ministry team to rebuild a church that was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

• Wilbourn Spomer began her law career at her father’s firm upon graduating from the University of Illinois School of Law in 1943 at the age of 22. Her first assignment was to argue a case before the Illinois Supreme Court, and she won. She later became the first female judge in Alexander County, then the first and only female circuit judge in the First Judicial Circuit, which encompassed the nine southern counties of Illinois.

Although Spomer retired in 1977, she was asked by Illinois Supreme Court Justice Joseph H. Goldenhersch to return to the bench and accept an appointment to the Fifth District Appellate Court, where she was the first female appellate court justice in the district, which encompasses the southern 37 counties of Illinois.

• Wheeler’s career in television news took her on assignments in Oklahoma, Washington, Oregon, California, and Texas, before moving to Southern Illinois’ WSIL TV3 in 1983. She served as news director and anchor for WSIL until 1992, when she left the station for a while to devote more time to her family.

Now Wheeler enthusiastically supports many local, state and national organizations that are advocates for children. She has been an advisory board member of the Poshard Foundation since its inception in 1999, chairing the Foundation’s dinner and helping to raise funds in support of the Foundation’s work on behalf of children, and served as vice chair of Voices for Illinois Children. She is also a board member for the National Runaway Switchboard and Williamson County Child Advocacy Services, works in support of church youth groups, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, and has provided support to the Carbondale Women’s Center Capital Campaign.

• Brennan, a College of Business graduate, was nominated by Dean J. Dennis Cradit, who described her as an “entrepreneur.” Her business ventures began in the form of a company that produced educational computer interactive videos, later named Taylor Studios.

“Through Betty’s business savvy, and her remarkable ability to integrate the seemingly disparate worlds of creativity and business rigor, Taylor Studios today is a custom exhibit design and fabrication firm specializing in natural history exhibits for museums and nature centers,” says Cradit in his nomination letter. “Today she is president of a company grossing $4.8 million in revenue in 2008, and on track to reach their ambitious goal of $10 million in revenue by 2012.”

Brennan also devotes her time to the college’s advisory board, and was inducted into the College of Business Hall of Fame in 2006. Recently, she established the Betty L. Brennen Scholarship, designed to aid business majors who struggle with limited financial resources while they complete their education.