NEWPORT NEWS—Juanita Conway, Historic Site Assistant with Newport News Historic Services, was recently named the 2021 “Gregory Cherry Tourism Professional of the Year” during a Tourism Appreciation Breakfast at Kiln Creek Golf Club & Resort.
Conway has worked with the City of Newport News for 25 years, logging hundreds of hours as a volunteer starting in 1997 while she worked full-time as a teacher. After retiring from her 30-year teaching career, Conway was hired to work at Lee Hall Mansion, where she leads school programs, bus tours, and summer camps.
“As I sat there listening to the opening statements before the award was given, I heard a couple of things that sounded familiar,” said Conway. “The further the talk went on, the more I was thinking, ‘That sounds like me,’ but then also thinking, ‘Nah, it couldn’t possibly be me.’ It wasn’t until almost the end of Mayor Price’s speech that I thought, ‘Holy Toledo. They are talking about me.’ I was blown away. You could have knocked me over with a feather.”
Ironically, Conway almost didn’t attend the surprise ceremony because she was recovering from surgery and wasn’t feeling great the morning of the event.
“I almost called my boss and told her I wasn’t going to make it,” said Conway. “But then I thought: Someone had paid for the breakfast. They had a reservation for me. I’m going to go.”
Laura Willoughby, Conway’s supervisor who nominated her for the award, was asked to keep the presentation a surprise. She lured Conway to the event by telling her that they might be asked to give a short presentation about Lee Hall.
“Juanita had major surgery two weeks before the event, so we didn’t even know if she was going to make it,” said Willoughby. “I didn’t want to blindside her because I knew she didn’t feel her best and had to get up in front of city dignitaries and the cream of the crop of tourism professionals in Newport News, so we said she would have to get up and perform a skit with us about Newport News. She knew there was going to be something, but she didn’t know she was going to be the one receiving the award.”
One thing that wasn’t surprising to Willoughby was that Conway was selected to receive the reward.
“She always receives glowing and positive comments,” said Willoughby. “Even my supervisor said she’s never seen someone with such exceptional feedback. Usually, there’s one nitpicky or negative comment thrown in. We’re all human. We all sometimes don’t live up to our best expectations. But she’s never had a poor comment or even an average comment the entire time she’s been here. All of her reviews and surveys have been outstanding, and all the visitors really commend her for her knowledge.”
Even amid all the hoopla, Conway remains humble but appreciative.
“Other than my husband and my children, it’s probably the most amazing thing that’s ever happened to me,” said Conway. “I never thought for any reason I would receive any kind of award. I’ve been driving that driveway [to Lee Hall Mansion] every working day for a quarter of a century. I still smile every time I go up that driveway. I love it there.”
The “Gregory Cherry Tourism Professional of the Year Award” is given annually in May to a Newport News hospitality industry employee who demonstrates superior customer service while also promoting tourism and travel in the city. It was named in memory of Gregory Cherry, a former travel counselor at the Newport News Visitors Center and owner of the James A. Fields House, who passed away in 2007.