PUNTA GORDA — Punta Gorda Rotary annually selects a recipient for its prestigious Service Above Self award and honors the winner with a November testimonial dinner at the Isles Yacht Club.
There are two criteria for the award — living here a substantial length of time, and exemplary service to the community. Recent winners include Marilyn Smith-Mooney, the late Wayne Goff, JoAnn Helphenstine, Wally Keller, Gussie Baker, Vic Desguin, Rufus Lazzell, Phil Wilson, Dr. Mark Asperilla and Derek Dunn-Rankin.
This year’s honoree is Mike Riley.
He is the Charlotte County Schools Public Information Officer and School & Community Liaison, as well as the founder and leader of The BoogieMen, a popular rock and soul band. He inspired Smuggler’s Enterprise Foundation to name its community service award after him.
He has served the YMCA, Boys & Girls Club, Take Stock in Children, Teacher of the Year celebrations, Christmas parades, Homeless Coalition, Arts & Humanities Council, commencements and graduations and more.
That record made Riley an easy choice, according to selection committee chairman Alyson Burch.
“It was more than unanimous; it was a no-brainer,” she said.
Riley is reluctant to take himself too seriously. He arranged to be ushered into the club’s Aug. 29 luncheon meeting for the formal announcement while under arrest by a county and city police officer.
Of the award announcement, Riley said: “I’m embarrassed when people praise me. I’ve got an ego but I’m a humble guy… The Punta Gorda club has such a legacy and history. Just look at that list of names; how did I slip in the back door?”
He credits his school system job for giving him unique access to the community and its needs, as well as his band for providing him a tool to help others.
“There are around 245 nonprofits in Charlotte County,” he said. “We’ve played for nothing, for more than half of them. Much credit goes to the band members.”
Lessons he learned as a youth back in Hamilton, Ohio are the source of his commitment to community.
He said his parents, a neighbor and Bill Sharp, a high school physical education teacher everyone called Coach, instilled in him self-esteem, compassion for other people and the joy of giving back to the community.
It's an ethic he has followed since his early days as a physical education teacher at Meadow Park Elementary.
“Coach Sharp was a little man of huge stature, beyond reproach and very inspirational,” Riley said. “He was my role model, my mentor, my hero.”
One other big influence is his wife of eight years, Juli, who Riley says “keeps me in line as much as she can.” It’s a full-time job, but one she enjoys.
Juli said, “I’m his biggest supporter; I do everything with the band and haven’t missed too many gigs. He has an ego, but he thinks more of everyone else than he does himself. We wouldn’t love him as much as we do if that wasn’t the case. He especially cares for those in need; that’s where kids come in. He loves to help kids who can’t help themselves.”