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Column: A group of winners unlike any other

The first editions of our newspapers each year are always among my favorites.

They may be stressful to finish at times, coming off the holiday, but the reward is always worth it. We begin each year by telling the stories of a few people in the community who stood out for their accomplishments, generosity, heroism or selflessness. The annual People of the Year tradition now dates back just over three decades; the first round of winners was revealed in 1988.

During that time, there’s never been a year quite like 2020. And we’ve never had a group of winners quite like this.

The process of selecting winners for each of our three newspapers and our lifestyle website northforker.com begins a few months before the issue hits newsstands. The community itself plays a vital role in nominating people, some of whom may have been operating under the radar and didn’t necessarily generate headlines in print during prior months. Those stories always stand out to me, when we can shine a light on people who haven’t necessarily gotten recognition before. Together as a staff, we generate our own suggestions for those we consider deserving, then sort through all our public nominations and begin the difficult process of identifying the winners you read about today.

This year, the People of the Year seemed to sneak up faster than usual. Last March, the awards ceremony we’d planned for Polish Hall in Riverhead had to be canceled as the coronavirus pandemic took hold. At the time, we figured it’d be best to postpone it until sometime in May, once things were safer.

Of course, little did we know back then just how serious the long-term effects of this pandemic would be for us here. So, as months dragged on, we eventually had to cancel the ceremony altogether. Instead, in August we began unveiling the videos we’d prepared for each of the 2019 winners that were intended to debut at the ceremony. By the time that concluded, it seemed we were back into the process of sorting through candidates for this current group of winners.

As we discussed our choices, it became clear that the winners should reflect the unique circumstances the community faced in 2020. Not only did we face the global pandemic, but there were was a national movement focused on racial inequality and police brutality that led to protests and vigils all across the North Fork.

The chapter on 2020 in history books will tell an incredible story, not to mention everything that happened in a wildly divided political time and the presidential election.

In some ways, this was one of the more challenging groups of winners to decide. Over the past year, we witnessed overwhelming heroism from the front-line workers who bravely stepped up to keep the rest of us healthy and risked their own safety to confront a never-before-seen coronavirus.

There are more who deserve to be called the Person of the Year than we can list in these pages. Think about all those who work at our local hospitals — not just the doctors and nurses, but the entire staff that make the 24/7 operation go. There are the nursing home workers who faced extraordinary challenges. Our first responders who needed to rip open a package of personal protective equipment before going into a home and assisting a person in need of help. The essential workers who kept our communities running, whether a cashier at the grocery store or the bus driver who helped transport people to their jobs. The business owners who transformed their workplaces to help in the fight against COVID. And the volunteers who sacrificed their own time and safety at one of many food banks across the area to help feed those who were suffering lost wages due to the pandemic.

There was no shortage of good deeds.

I hope our selections this year represent the goodwill contributed by so many. And I think the winners themselves would tell you they did not do it alone.

As we begin a new year, I hope these stories continue to remind us that no matter how bleak the outlook may appear, there are so many people right here in our community working tirelessly to make it a better place.