MOUNT VERNON – Gerry Rensel retired from his duties with the Dan Emmett Music & Arts Festival last year. But he didn’t feel right about walking away without saying goodbye to all the friends he’d made over the last 15 years, so he returned to the festival Thursday night.
It was a good thing he did.
GALLERY: 2019 Dan Emmett Unsung Hero Award
Gerry Rensel was given the Dan Emmett Unsung Hero Award on Thursday night at the 2019 Dan Emmett Music & Arts Festival. Rensel, a former Mount Vernon resident, helped start the local Chautauqua program 13 years ago alongside Mike and Chris Petee. He also served as a longtime Dan Emmett Festival volunteer, running the South Stage.
Rensel was given the Dan Emmett Unsung Hero Award for his two decades of service to the Dan Emmett Festival and the Knox County community as a whole. Rensel was shocked to hear his name called from the Main Stage, and he struggled to get through his acceptance speech without choking up.
“I want to thank you very much,” he told the festival board members who presented the award. “I mean, this is a very, very special award.”
Rensel, a Pennsylvania native, moved to Mount Vernon in 1996 to work for Cooper-Cameron’s Mount Vernon Works. He stayed with the company for 21 years, as it transformed into Rolls Royce Energy Systems and then Siemens Energy Corporation. He moved back home to Pennsylvania after retiring in 2017, so he could care for his 90-year-old mother and watch his grandson star for his high school football and wrestling teams.
In his 21 years in Mount Vernon, Rensel quietly made his presence felt. Rensel, along with Mike and Chris Petee, started the the local entertainment group 'Elixir Presents.' They also established Mount Vernon’s Chautauqua program 13 years ago, bringing a historical flavor to the local performing arts scene. The program has grown over the years, involving people of all ages, and Rensel has helped organize every session.
Rensel has also played a major role at the Dan Emmett Festival over the last 15 years. He ran the South Stage on East Gambier Street, which typically holds events like the Cheer Competition, the Youth Showcase and concerts all weekend long. Rensel would emcee events and keep the stage on schedule.
It was a nonstop job, festival board chair Joe Rinehart said, and he did it with ease.
“Literally, the South Stage was his baby,” said Rinehart, who has worked the festival for the past 15 years. “He and John Nixon and whoever else… that was their thing.”
The Unsung Hero Award is given to someone who works hard to make the community better, although they do so quietly.
“They’re somebody that’s not out front, they’re not getting the recognition, they just do things because they know they’re right to do,” longtime festival director Pat Crow said last year. “The people that receive it are honored because they’re usually somewhat humble people anyway. They do service because they want to, because they think they’re doing the community good.”
The award was established 19 years ago as a way to honor Eleanor Wright, who took care of Dan Emmett’s grave in Mount Vernon for 35 years. She made sure it was clean and that flowers were planted until she could no longer do so.
“She didn’t want any recognition, she just did it because she loved doing it,” Rensel recalled.
Rensel not only embraced Wright’s selfless spirit, but he also knew her personally. So did Mike Petee, who created the award as a way to honor Wright and those like her. That’s what made Thursday so special, Rensel said.
“My friend Mike Petee started this,” Rensel said. “And that’s what’s really, really special is the fact that he started it and I know all about the reason why he started it.”
As a festival organizer for 15 years, Rensel said he never expected to receive the award. In true Unsung-Hero fashion, he never thought he deserved it.
“I’m in the Chautauqua, I work at the festival, so I saw what some of the people had done over the years and they did all kinds of community work,” Rensel said.
But those closest to Rensel know he earned it. Nothing symbolizes the 68-year-old’s servant mindset like his actions over the past two summers. Even after he retired from Siemens in 2017 and moved back home to Sharon, Pennsylvania, just over the Ohio border, he still managed to make the 150-mile trek back to Mount Vernon each August to work the Dan Emmett Festival.
His dedication did not go unnoticed.
"I can’t think of anybody that is more deserving of this award than Mr. Gerry Rensel," festival organizer Susan Kahrl said.
Rensel did it because of his love for Mount Vernon and his love for Dan Emmett, who he said inspired him to be a better musician. As someone who has a passion for playing the fiddle, banjo, mandolin and guitar, Rensel said he studied Dan Emmett during his time in Mount Vernon and was fascinated by his legacy.
“The guy was my passion and he was my fire for coming back here and doing all the stuff that I did for the festival,” Rensel said. “It’s really special to get an award from a festival in his name, the Dan Emmett Music & Arts Festival… I hope that for the many, many years to come that we don’t forget Uncle Dan.”