This article was published in the Lenoir News-Topic.

Everything that happened onstage at the J.E. Broyhill Civic Center Thursday night was about strength.

As the night came to a close, Kay Roukema – chair of the Caldwell County Council for Women – stood and made the announcement that was the purpose of the night: the recipient of the 2013 Caldwell County Distinguished Woman of the Year award.

She introduced the winner, Deborah Ashley, who is the president of the Caldwell County Chamber of Commerce and thought thought when the night started that she was on her way to dinner with her husband in Hickory. Ashley was born in Happy Valley, graduated from Hibriten High School and Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute, and, after a stint in Thomasville, came back home.Roukema talked about Ashley’s dedication to God, family and Caldwell County, and about her strength.

“Her heart for and her dedication to Caldwell County describes who she is,” Roukema said.

The beginning of the night was about strength, too. The evening’s speaker, North Carolina author Estie Culler Bennington, in her soft, Southern accent, told stories that made jaws clench and brows wrinkle throughout the room.

Bennington talked about overcoming the scars of childhood, which, for her, were deep. The writer, who was kidnapped by her paranoid schizophrenic father at age 5, talked about sleeping on pine needles and about a childhood without doctors and teachers. She talked about getting her first toothbrush and not knowing what to do with it, all in the 1950s – a time many hail as the peak of American innocence.

But in the end, maybe the night wasn’t about strength after all. Maybe it was about joy. That’s how Ashley, the Woman of the Year, talked about it.

“I feel … how I enjoy life is not a sacrifice, it is my joy,” she said. “I do love Caldwell County.”