sturgis award winner

2021 Sturgis Award recipient – Joey Helleny, second from left, receives the Lindell W. Sturgis Memorial Public Service Award from Sturgis’ granddaughter, Pamela Pfeffer. With Helleny are SIU Carbondale Chancellor Austin Lane, left, and SIU President Daniel Mahony. (Photo by Russell Bailey)

April 29, 2021

2021 Sturgis Award recipient Helleny’s volunteer efforts help showcase Southern Illinois

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. — When discussing HerrinFesta Italiana, Herrin’s annual weeklong celebration that runs through Memorial Day, it’s hard to not also mention Joey Helleny. The work that Helleny and myriad other volunteers put into running one of the region’s largest and best-known festivals is not only important to Williamson County but Southern Illinois as well.

Helleny, the 2021 Lindell W. Sturgis Memorial Public Service Award recipient, said it’s important to promote the region and Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

And while Helleny has had opportunities to leave during his four decades in broadcast journalism and as a senior lecturer in the Department of Radio, Television, and Digital Media, his family’s history with SIU and “deep roots” to the region kept him here. His late parents, Taffie and E.J. Helleny, along with his sister, Jane, and brother, Robert, and two of his three nieces all are SIU Carbondale graduates.

His family has been a “part of Southern Illinois for a long time and part of that is being a Saluki,” Helleny said, noting that it “would have taken something significant for me to want to leave.”

“SIU is really a gem,” he said. “We’ve gone through some bumps in the road here lately, but we have one of the most beautiful campuses in the nation. We have some really stellar programs. This is a great place to study, and it’s a great place to teach. And it’s an important anchor for Southern Illinois.”

Award honors former longtime Board of Trustee member

Presented by the SIU Board of Trustees since 1980, the award recognizes SIU Carbondale employees for public service unrelated to their jobs. The award honors Sturgis, a Metropolis native who served more than 30 years on the SIU board. Sturgis passed away in 1972. 

Helleny and his family were friends with Bill O’Brien, a former recreation department chair, SIU football coach and NFL Super Bowl referee, who received the first award in 1980.

“I’m very thankful to the Sturgis family for continuing to recognize SIU employees who do things above and beyond their jobs. I think that is important,” Helleny said. “I know of his legacy in helping to build this university. Having an award with his name on it means a lot. Starting with Bill O’Brien and some of the other people who have gotten the award over the years – it’s really humbling to be a part of that group.”

Volunteer efforts aimed at promoting region

Planning for HerrinFesta, which began in 1991 and was interrupted only last year by the COVID-19 pandemic, takes almost a year to prepare. Helleny has been involved with the event for 29 of its 30 years, including vice president of the all-volunteer committee for 15 years.

“It’s a way for, let’s face it, a relatively small town to show its stuff once a year,” he said. “We think we do a really good job of putting on what has become more than just a local festival, more of a regional event. It’s fun to throw a party and invite everybody to come. It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s worth it.”

Helleny’s “dedication and leadership to our event has been truly unbelievable,” Cris Trapani, HerrinFesta Italiana president, said.

“He truly exemplifies what selfless service to others is all about. Literally hundreds of hours, throughout the year, are spent in the planning and implementation phases of HerrinFesta with Joey being at the forefront. I could not think of a more deserving individual than Joey Helleny for this award,” Trapani said.

Since April 2006, Helleny has also been with the visitSI, formerly the Williamson County Tourism Bureau, where the focus is promoting the region as a whole. He is vice chair of the organization’s executive board.

“The goal is to get people to visit not only Williamson County but Southern Illinois in general and come to the Shawnee National Forest, the wineries and the great fishing spots. Tourism is an important but sometimes underappreciated part of our economy, and I’m happy to help promote that,” Helleny said.

Shannon Wiesenmayer, visitSI chief executive officer, said Helleny’s commitment to the organization and the region is “truly remarkable.”

“Joey’s knowledge of the area, marketing experience and love of travel makes him a great fit for our organization,” she said. “I can always count on Joey to be there when I need to bounce new ideas and out-of-the-box projects off of someone.”

Credits parents for his volunteer spirit

Helleny’s parents were the impetus for each of the family members to give back to their communities, he said. He especially credits his mother, E.J., whose volunteer activities included serving as president of the Friends of Morris Library and a Friends of WSIU board member. For many years, she was the volunteer buyer for the Herrin Hospital Auxiliary Gift Shop.

“She really devoted a good part of her life to giving back, and I think it sets a great example for myself and my brother and sister,” said Helleny, whose other volunteer work includes the Herrin Elks Lodge and Williamson County Emergency Management Agency. He has also served on numerous academic search committees at SIU and chaired the university’s Honorary Degree and Distinguished Service Award committee for several years.

“I don’t like my life to be one note,” he said. “Some people come to work, and work is all they have. To me, life should be more varied, and so when I can lend my talent or expertise to a festival or a tourism agency or an emergency management agency, I get to meet all kinds of people. I get to feel that I’ve made an impact on what those organizations do, and it’s a good feeling to do something not just because you are paid for it but because you want to help out.”

Interest in journalism career started in high school

A two-degree SIU graduate, Helleny has been with the university since 1999. Prior to that, his career included work at WDDD AM-FM and later WCIL AM-FM. The 1973 Herrin High School graduate’s interest in broadcast journalism began with a high school journalism class. He volunteered while an SIU student at WIDB and later WSIU.

It was while working as a chief engineer at Zimmer Radio that the opportunity to teach, initially part-time, came into being. A few years later, the job moved into a full-time position. In 2006, he received the university’s top teaching honor for term faculty.

“The university has a lot of missions – research and service, but at our core, it is teaching students. To be recognized as somebody who made some kind of impact as a teacher; that was really special for me.”

Helleny is faculty adviser for the student TV newscast, River Region Evening Edition, on WSIU-TV.

“I teach them, but they teach me as well and keep my outlook young and keep me on my toes,” he said. “It’s really just a joy to be able to watch them grow as students and watch them succeed later on in their professional careers.”