Reece, a Cobb native, was presented the award Saturday night by MDJ General Manager Otis Brumby III during the Cobb Chamber's 69th annual dinner at the Cobb Galleria. The award recipient is always kept secret until it is presented - and that almost didn't happen with Reece, who had plans to be in New York this weekend. He had to be coaxed into changing his plans to attend the gala by the Chairman of the Friends of the Strand Board and its namesake, Earl Smith.
"You've just got to be there," Smith told Reece, adding he needed to represent the Strand on that important night. Those in attendance would no doubt agree that Reece is the face of the Earl Smith Strand Theatre, where he took on the director's role in 2007. But his contributions to Cobb run much deeper.
"Tonight's recipient has paid his civic dues like others who have received this award before him," said Otis Brumby III. "He is a homegrown product who taught over 9,000 students, many of whom are probably in this room." He added that Reece has a building on the Pebblebrook High School campus named after him "not because of money, but because of his time, energy, effort and accomplishments."
Reece joined the Strand after serving 14 years as director of the Cobb County Center for Excellence in the Performing Arts at Pebblebrook High School and 33 years of public education service. Smith said he asked Reece to come out of retirement to take on the job of building an exciting entertainment venue in a 1935 Art Deco theatre on the Marietta Square. But first it needed to be totally renovated with money that had not yet been raised.
"I thought he was going to jump out of his chair with excitement," Smith said of the meeting, which began a partnership between the two to raise dollars and bring the best in entertainment to the venue. "It has been a great connection, and his relationship between the educational system and the arts has made it even more special."
At Pebblebrook, Reece grew the magnet arts program from 200 students to a nationally-recognized program with more than 700 students. Graduates of the program have performed on Broadway in over 30 shows and in many national tours. In fact, several grads have even performed at the Strand as part of the Atlanta Lyric Theatre, which now calls the Strand its home. Since its opening in 2008, the Strand has hosted more than 1,100 events and has a staff of six full-time and 10 part-time employees.
Reece, 61, was visibly surprised by the award and thanked Earl Smith for a "second lease on life." He thanked his staff at the Strand and its advisory board for their support. His wife of 26 years, Terri, was in the audience as was his brother, Randy, a professor at Chattahoochee Technical Institute. "I want to thank Mr. Brumby and the MDJ," said Reece. "I'm most honored, most appreciative, and most surprised."
Reece is also known for having the ability to talk people up on stage who wouldn't otherwise venture there.
Just last weekend he directed Neil Simon's "The Sunshine Boys," a fundraising show for the Strand that featured well-known Cobb government, business and community leaders. Kim Gresh, president of S.A. White Oil Co., was one such non-actor who took to the stage because Reece asked her.
"I've had the pleasure of putting Earl's name in my friend column," Gresh said. "We're very kindred spirits, and I would not have done it for anyone else except him. His years as a teacher have given him the ability to encourage and build people up." She said Reece pulled together the entire cast and "we felt like one big family."
Gresh also served with Reece as co-chair of the 175th City of Marietta birthday celebration in 2009 and saw him in action almost daily, with non-stop events planned around the city to mark the year-long party. Reece also chairs the educational task force for the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre and is active with the Marietta Kiwanis Club, the Cobb Cultural Arts Advisory Board, and the Marietta High School feasibility theatre project committee.
Smith, who turned 80 earlier this year, is stepping down from the Strand board, but he knows the future is in good hands with Reece as director.
"I hope this convinces him that he is where he needs to be," Smith said of Reece being named Citizen of the Year. "He and his staff deserve much of the credit for the Strand's success. His connection with the community and with us (the Friends board) has allowed us to do what we have done."
This is the 48th year the Journal has presented the Citizen of the Year award. Last year's recipient was Cobb County Manager David Hankerson.