What does it take to become a Clinton Tribute Road Race honoree?
It takes a dedication to the youth of Clinton that goes beyond a job. It takes commitment.
Those characteristics describe this year's honorees.
Heidi Ernst-Hoag and Fred Sontag are coaches with Turner Gymnastics. James "Nibben" O'Toole, longtime custodian at Clinton Town Hall and fervent Red Sox fan, had a 30-year relationship with Clinton Minor League.
The three will be honored at this year's Tribute, scheduled for Saturday, May 7.
Ernst-Hoag and Sontag
Ernst-Hoag and Sontag may teach gymnastics, but their students "learn to become better people," according to a nomination letter written by Colleen Dunn. "They have confidence. They build mental and physical strength. They are leaders and support their teammates."
According to the nomination letter, "Coach Heidi and Coach Fred support their students through awards of achievement; praise them for trying something new and to get up after a fall. They help the students focus on schoolwork, achieve goals and so much more of life's obstacles."
Those concepts were echoed in several letters written by other parents who nominated Ernst-Hoag and Sontag.
Ernst-Hoag and Sontag both said they were shocked to be chosen for this honor.
"I have never been so complimented and honored in my life," said Ernst-Hoag, who is celebrating her 10th anniversary with Turner Hall. "I must say I was a bit shocked and in disbelief. Now that it has sunk in, I'm extremely grateful and honored the parents of the children I hold so dear to me appreciate the love and dedication I have for the position I hold at Turner gymnastics."
"I was pretty taken aback," Sontag said, adding that he has been at Turner Hall "forever."
Both Ernst-Hoag and Sontag grew up taking gymnastics at Turner Hall. She returned to the gym to teach preschool classes in March 2001, and began teaching more and more.
Sontag began at the gym in the early 1960s and remembers helping to rebuild the club after it burned down in 1969-1970.
"I'm a fourth-generation Turner," he said.
And, while the gymnastic courses have trained the students to be physically-fit, the two said they take pride in seeing their students excel not only in front of judges, but in life.
"Gymnastics teaches them perseverance and that hard work pays off," Ernst-Hoag said.
Sontag agreed, adding that Turner's motto is "sound mind and sound body."
Their students also excel at school, despite hours of practice in gymnastics because the students' study at Turner Hall teaches them time management, Ernst-Hoag said.
"This is definitely a family organization," Sontag said. "We don't have to have the most talented athletes. My ultimate goal is not the Olympics, but making them better people by teaching skills they can apply throughout their life."
At some point, the fact that they are joining the ranks of such former Tribute honorees as "Bingo" McMahon, Bernice McGrail and John Cannon Jr. will sink in.
But Sontag said it wasn't important to talk about him and Hoag.
"It's really what's best for the kids," he said.
O'Toole was chosen as an honoree "because of his involvement with the Clinton Minor League," according to race co-director Frank Hewitt. Nominations spotlighted his work in several areas involving children. "He coached Minor League baseball for over 30 years. Nibben's philosophy was, win or lose, sportsmanship, discipline and respect...