MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - Both honorees were emotional in their acceptance speeches at the Bobby Dunavant Public Servant Awards presented by Rotary Club of Memphis East.
The annual event draws elected and non-elected leaders from Memphis and Shelby County government to celebrate years of integrity and overall excellence in service to the taxpayers.
There were standing ovations and many cheers for this year's non-elected honoree, Harvey Kennedy, chief administrative officer of Shelby County and Judge Tim Dwyer, the founder of Shelby County "Drug Court" who was elected to serve as judge in General Sessions Criminal Court, Division 8 in 1984.
Dwyer has won re-election every time his name has appeared on the ballot.
Kennedy was first to accept the honors, and his voice cracked with emotion as he thanked his wife Sandra and his family for their love and loyalty while he spent 26 years serving in the U.S. Navy.
"I was deployed to the Indian Ocean for nearly all of my daughter's junior year of high school," Kennedy said with a table filled with loved ones, including the CAO's granddaughter smiling back.
"I have no intention of spoiling her," Kennedy said of his lone grandchild, "but I have yet to tell her no."
To the delight of the 450 in attendance at the Holiday Inn ballroom at the University of Memphis. Kennedy retired from the Navy in the late 1990s and joined Shelby County's Corrections Department where he became part of then-Warden Mark Luttrell's team at the Shelby County Corrections Center.
Luttrell won his badge as Shelby County Sheriff in 2002, and Kennedy has been one of his closest aides ever since.
Luttrell won two terms as Sheriff (2002, 2006) and was elected Shelby County Mayor in 2010 and re-elected in 2014.
Kennedy thanks Luttrell for his confidence and noted that careful financial management of taxpayer money has reduced the county debt to less than $1 billion from a high of $1.6 billion.
Judge Dwyer founded the Shelby County Drug Treatment Court in 1997--nationally recognized as one of America's first criminal courts to favor rehabilitation instead of imprisonment for drug offenders.
Dwyer routinely jails drug offenders on a case by case basis, especially those who violate the conditions of drug court rules and requirements but takes great pains to get to know each of the defendants personally and handles each case with keen interest in personal life stories.
"Knowing that we have played a role in over 2,500 graduates getting their lives back is an awesome experience," Dwyer said. "Weekly, we get visits from Drug Court graduates informing us on how well they're doing in school, a promotion at work, a new addition to the family or many other positive outcomes. Inevitably they conclude the conversation with, 'thank you, judge. The Drug Court saved my life'"
The Judge thanked his wife Belynda and his family, noting that at least one Dwyer family member has been elected to public office in Memphis and Shelby County every decade since the 1950s, and he's impressed the importance of public service on his son, Conner.
"I'm hoping he will continue the tradition in whatever capacity he can to help others because public service is our highest calling," Dwyer said.
He reflected on loving encouragement from his parents, "who always instilled in me, we are placed on this earth for one purpose and that is to serve," the Judge told the large audience. "What a blessing from God to be able to work with an excellent group of young people who I call the Drug Court team and an amazing support group, our non-profit, the Shelby County Drug Court Foundation to help people battling the disease of addiction."
The Drug Court Foundation raises critical funds that help the court carry out its mission.
"You'll have to excuse me as I'm an emotional guy," Dwyer said, concluding, "I want to thank God for putting me in this position and hopefully at the end of my career I've been half the public servant that Bobby Dunavant was, then I'll know that I was a success."
Dunavant served 21 years as Probate Court Clerk in Shelby County, serving side by side with his team and refusing to use a private office.
Dunavant was regarded as a model public servant, noted for his honesty, transparency, and caring spirit.
The Rotary Club of Memphis East created the awards 15 years ago to salute Dunavant's service and to further the ideals of Rotary: Service Above Self.
Award winners are selected based on the characteristics best displayed by Dunavant in the years he served the citizens of Memphis and Shelby County.