The Fresno Chamber of Commerce honored a longtime civic leader and three entrepreneurs Wednesday during its annual Valley Business Awards and Installation Luncheon at the DoubleTree by Hilton in downtown Fresno.
Former Fresno County Supervisor Stan Oken was honored with the Leon S. Peters award, which recognizes business success and leadership as well as public service, contributions and investments in the Fresno area.
“I’ve always felt that the Leon S. Peters award was probably the highest honor that somebody could get, so it was surprising to me,” Oken said. “I never thought that I would be considered to be with such an esteemed group of people, but I am very honored.”
Oken, 87, served in the U.S. Army in World War II, and after the war earned a bachelor of science degree at California State University, Los Angeles. He became a teacher and coached sports at the high school and junior college levels for about 19 years in the Los Angeles area.
Oken’s mother died at a young age, and so he had to learn how to take care of himself and be independent from early on. At 12, he started working as a dishwasher for a camp in the mountains.
I’ve always felt that the Leon S. Peters award was probably the highest honor that somebody could get, so it was surprising to me.
Stan Oken, this year’s Leon S. Peters Award honoree
“I remember looking out the windows and seeing those kids, and I said someday I’m going to direct this camp,” Oken said. “This is not a job to a lot of people, this is a lifestyle. All of my three children started as dishwashers. They learned every activity, and so they knew every aspect of the business.”
Around 1967, he and two fellow coaches started a children’s camp in Three Rivers in Tulare County. When the lease on the property ended, he bought out his partners and in 1973 relocated the camp to what was Wonder Valley Dude Ranch, in the Fresno County foothills south of Pine Flat Reservoir.
In the 43 years since, the Oken family has built a modest dude ranch into a full-service resort and conference center that each summer hosts hundreds of children at youth camps, including a Champ Camp for burned children who have survived fires.
“For years, I’ve admired the contributions made to our community by all the previous recipients. Forty-three years ago, I moved my family to Fresno, and Fresno has been wonderful to us. This award means more to me than anyone could imagine,” Oken said.
The Peters award, established in 1984, is named for the former owner of Valley Foundry and Machine Works. Leon S. Peters was a noted philanthropist in Fresno and the central San Joaquin Valley.
I figured if I succeed, I succeed, and if I fail, I’ll just try again.
Clovis High graduate Chanelle Ojieh, who received the High School Entrepreneur of the Year Award
Also honored were Agnes Saghatelian of Valley Lahvosh, who received the Harold Zinkin Entrepreneur of the Year Award. Since taking over the business in 1993, Saghatelian has been driven to honor the legacy of her grandfather, who started the business in 1922 as a small corner bakery that has grown as a staple in the Fresno community.
“We have generations of Armenians that keep coming into the store, sharing stories that have then been passed down, then (passed) on to future generations,” Saghatelian said. “I don’t think my grandfather would ever have imagined that his business would be so big on this level. He was a baker and wanted to do what he loved, and to see it expand, I think he would be so proud.”
College Entrepreneur of the Year Tyler Turk was honored for his Date in a Crate monthly subscription box, which emerged out of a class assignment from the Lyles Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
Chanelle Ojieh, a recent graduate of Clovis High School, received the High School Entrepreneur of the Year Award for her African textile clothing company, Zola Apparel.
“For me, the most important part of starting something is knowing how to do it on your own first,” Ojieh said. “So I bought a sewing machine, started practicing and learning, and I figured if I succeed, I succeed, and if I fail, I’ll just try again.”
Megan Ginise: 559-441-6614