Posted on April 25th in General

Why I Consider the Orlowski Award to be PTK’s Highest Honor

Editor’s Note: This post was written and submitted by 1994-95 International President Kevin Braden, who helps fund the Orlowski International Officer Candidate Award. It has been edited for length and clarity.

As I stood in front of a room filled with this year’s International Officer candidates at the recent annual convention in Orlando, Florida, I thought I would start my presentation of the Steve Orlowski International Officer Candidate Award by delivering the shocking truth.

“I have an announcement to make that not even these Headquarters representatives are aware of (referring to Phi Theta Kappa staff members Jennifer Stanford and Dr. Susan Scaggs, who were joining me at the head table). No one is winning the Orlowski Award this year.”

The room fell quiet. I even saw a few jaws drop. The eyes that weren’t staring at me in puzzlement were darting at other sets of eyes around the room with the same puzzlement.

And then I continued.

“I say that because no one ever ‘wins’ the Orlowski Award. You see, in order to win something, there needs to a contest or competition of some kind involved.”

I went on to say that that’s not was this honor is about. The Orlowski Award is in no way a contest or competition. Sure, running for international office is…but the Orlowski is not. It’s much more than that.

The History

Let me start with some history. Steve Orlowski was a Phi Theta Kappa National Officer in 1986-87 (they were called National Officers before PTK went international in 1991). He was a member of the Theta Omega chapter at Wilbur Wright Community College in Chicago, Illinois. His advisor was Dr. Mary Anne Player, who later became Illinois Regional Coordinator and my friend.

Sadly, Steve succumbed to leukemia during his term of office. But his spirit, especially his PTK spirit, would never die. And Dr. Player made sure of it.

From what I was told years ago, there was already an award like this in place within the organization, but Dr. Player sought to have it named in Steve’s memory.

Every year since, the candidates running for International Office are asked to choose one fellow candidate who best embodies the true spirit of PTK and its hallmarks. That is why no one “wins” the Orlowski — you can’t campaign for it, you can’t compete for it, and it’s definitely not a contest. The only way to receive it is to be yourself and let a group of people — your fellow candidates — see what the true spirit of Phi Theta Kappa looks like through your heart.

That’s why I consider the Steve Orlowski International Candidate Award this organization’s highest individual honor.

When Dr. Player passed a number of years ago, she left an endowment of $50,000 to Phi Theta Kappa to make sure the Orlowski Award would always be funded. I personally added to that fund for a number of years, just to be doubly sure that the award would always be presented. Originally it came with a medallion and a $1,000 stipend, which has since been increased to $1,500. And the medallion has taken on a new look.

A Nail

A number of years ago, I was talking to a dear friend who once ran for International Office and had been chosen by her peers to receive the Orlowski Award. During our conversation, I asked what she did with her Orlowski medallion, and I’ll never forget her reply: “It’s hanging on a nail in my bedroom.”

At first, part of me was shocked. Such a meaningful award hanging on a nail? Then I gave it some more thought. At least she had it on display and not just shoved in the back of her sock drawer. And being a college student and a single mom, maybe she just doesn’t have the financial resources to display it more prominently.

I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I called a friend of mine who, at the time, worked at Headquarters, and asked her if HQ would consider having the Orlowski medallion nicely framed each year with an embossed presentation plate on the front of it. I even told her I’d be willing to pay for it annually.

She ran it by the powers-that-be, and my idea was put into place. She came back with one small stipulation: Headquarters wanted me to commit to funding the medallion, its framing, and the embossed plate for a minimum of 10 years.

I refused. The only commitment I would make for this would be a lifetime one.

So again this year, I walked into a room, and there it was: the Orlowski medallion beautifully framed, waiting for me to present it. And presenting it is just as much of an honor as receiving it.

This year I had the honor of presenting it to Neville Scott, the one chosen by his peers to receive the 2019 Steve Orlowski Candidate Award. The candidate that the other candidates felt best embodied what Phi Theta Kappa, and Steve’s spirit, is all about.

And just prior to announcing Neville’s name, I choked back the tears as I said the six words that will always touch my heart…

The Kiss of Death

No! Those aren’t the words! Besides, there are only four of them. Even though it’s a bad segue into the last part of this story, that’s what some used to call it: the Orlowski Award, the Kiss of Death.

In no way did they mean any disrespect to what happened to Steve during his term; rather, it was called that for another reason. For many years, people who received the Orlowski Award did not get elected to National or International Office. There wasn’t any rule saying that one couldn’t; it just never happened.

But times can change.

On April 9, 1994, I sat on a main aisle seat of the very last row in a large auditorium of the Anaheim Hilton & Towers in Anaheim, California. I was a chapter president and an International Officer candidate myself, one that had made it to the runoff against a very strong candidate from Texas. Hallmark Award after Hallmark Award had been presented, and then it was time for the presentation of the Orlowski Award and the announcement of the new International Officers.

Dr. Mary Anne Player, my Regional Coordinator, walked out on stage, said six amazingly beautiful words, opened the envelope, pulled out the card, hung her head, and mumbled my name.

I was in shock! Me? The Orlowski Candidate? I had never felt so honored, so humbled. I started the long walk up the center aisle up to the stage, where I received what I and many consider to be the most meaningful individual award in all of Phi Theta Kappa. And as I walked to the stage, I had to walk right by the Texas region, which was already celebrating. That’s why Dr. Player hung her head and mumbled my name. Me. The Orlowski Award. The Kiss of Death. And Texas knew it.

One by one it started. The four new International Vice Presidents were announced and sworn in. Then, it was time for 1993-94 International President Elizabeth (Liz) Priore to announce her successor. She walked up to the microphone, opened the envelope, and said…

…my name.

Time seemed to stop. Even in playing the video, you can hear the audience go momentarily silent in disbelief before it seemed to explode in applause and excitement. I was already headed for the door as she was opening the envelope — I wanted to get a good position in the foyer to greet and congratulate the five new International Officers as they came out. But wait! What? Is the Kiss of Death no more? It is indeed a night I will never forget.

In receiving the Orlowski Award this year, Neville Scott became the eighth person in Phi Theta Kappa history to receive it and be elected to International Office (one President and now seven Vice Presidents).

I’ll also never forget flying back to Chicago from Anaheim the next day. Clutching the Orlowski Medallion in my left hand and the medallion of the International President in my right hand. Thinking that the night before was all just a dream.

I remember the tears welling up in my eyes as I thought about the six words Dr. Player said prior to opening the envelope with my name in it. They are the same six words I share when I present the Orlowski Award, and my eyes still fill with tears.

“You would have loved him too.”

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