Mellody Blakeney, a single mother of three, has been cheerfully manning the register at the Giant convenience mart since it opened on east Highway 260 nearly six years ago.
"People say I'm always smiling and happy," said Blakeney, who tied with Mindy Joslin of Walgreens in the best clerk category. "I just really enjoy working with people, so I do it without even thinking about it."
Blakeney moved to the Rim country 14 years ago because she wanted to raise her children in a small town with a friendly school system. Payson fit that bill nicely, she said.
"Now my youngest is 18 and getting ready to move out," she said with a touch of apprehension in her voice. "That's going to take some getting used to. I usually go to work and then go home to spend time with my kids and grandkids."
Her two youngest children -- Chelsea and Colt Nielson -- still live in Payson. Chelsea, the youngest, is preparing to move out on her own, and Colt works as a wood flooring installer. Her oldest son, Brandon Warren, lives in Prescott, where he's going to school and working as a welder and machinist. She also has six grandchildren and another one on the way.
Although her life revolves around her children at home, when she's at work, Blakeney said she's all about her customers.
"I have to do a little paperwork, but I hurry up and get that done so I can go back out front," she said. "I enjoy the people who come in, and I try to be happy and understanding so they leave our store happy."
When Payson firefighter Danny Bramble shows up at someone's house, it's a good bet they're having a bad day. It's his job to try to turn things around.
"When we meet people it's a bad time in their lives," he said. "We try to allay their fears and do our best to make their problem go away."
In Payson, that can mean more than stopping a house fire or treating someone's injuries.
"We do everything we can to help," Bramble said. "Let's say someone gets in a car accident and has to go to the hospital, but their dog and groceries are in the car. We'll make an effort to take their dog home and put the groceries away in their fridge. It's little things like that that really make their day."
Bramble, this year's top firefighter, grew up in Payson and started working part time for the fire department in 1999. He was hired full time three years ago.
The excitement of the job is alluring, he said, but helping people is what the job's all about.
"When I was fresh out of paramedic school, we got a call for a man down with cardiac arrest," he said. "That's the epitome of a paramedic's job -- bringing someone back from cardiac arrest.
"The day worked perfectly for that guy. He was at work, and his co-workers gave him CPR. Someone called 911. We showed up about four minutes later. We shocked him a couple of times, gave him some drugs and gave him CPR. A couple of days later, he walked out of a Phoenix hospital, and a little later, he was able to go back to work. Calls don't always go that well, but that day was really cool."
These days, Bramble said, one of the most pressing challenges facing the community -- and the nation -- is reducing the wildland fire threat. He was one of four Payson firefighters who fought the 2002 Rodeo Fire, which merged with the Chediski Fire and burned about 468,000 acres near Show Low.
"It really opened our eyes," he said. "It made us want to come back and get right to work mitigating the fire danger -- which I think is going fairly well now -- to avoid another catastrophic fire season. It really drove the point home that if we don't want something like that to happen here, we have to take steps to prevent it."
Bramble's toughest personal challenge, however, is balancing work and family. He and his wife Janae, who is completing a dental hygiene degree at Northern Arizona University, have an 18-month-old daughter named Mckenna.
"In this line of work, you have to be gone all the time," he said. "It doesn't pay that well so you have to work a lot of hours or pick up a couple of part-time jobs. Consequently, you don't have much time to spend with your family.
"I want to look back and know I did a good job at work, but that I was also a successful husband and father."
John Carpino, who's topped Payson's Best Musician chart 10 years in a row now, discovered his passion for music somewhere between the football field and the school nurse's office.
"I wanted to play sports," he said, "but I kept getting hurt because I was the smallest kid in class. I figured playing the guitar would be safer than playing football."
And he was right. During his 25-year music career, he's written 400 songs, recorded three tapes and two CDs and staged thousands of live performances -- all without a single injury.
His career hit a new high note last year when his song "Rock ‘N' Roll Highway" shot to No. 1 on the independent country charts. He was later commissioned to produce and perform more than 50 ballads for a military history and song CD series that will be added to the Smithsonian Institute's music archive collection.
"I enjoy performing and it shows," Carpino said. "I guess that sort of thing just sticks with people."
As does his kindness. Last year, Carpino donated the proceeds from his CD "Heart in the Rain" to the victims of the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski Fire, which burned more than 468,000 acres in northern Arizona and destroyed more than 460 homes.
"Several songs on the CD are about places in northern Arizona," he said. "That's what gave me the idea. It just seemed to fit."
Currently, Carpino is working on a new CD, tentatively titled "Evolution," which is due to be released this year.
"Songwriting is my first love," he said. "I really enjoy it when I have the time."
Although Carpino remains Payson's favorite musician, he pared down his performance schedule two years ago to pursue his latest passion -- operating KRIM 96.3 FM, a nonprofit public radio station that plays a variety of music, including rock, folk, bluegrass, contemporary, jazz and big band. He runs the station with his wife, Luann, who's been a radio personality in Payson for 12 years. They also have four children.
"It's great," he said. "It's a lot of work, but I'm very proud of it. It's totally unique. We've had people from all over the country stop by to say they love the station, and they wish they had something like it in their area."
The station's eclectic musical style mirrors Carpino's own on-stage versatility, which crosses effortlessly from blues to rock to folk to country.
"I like to mix things up," he said. "I don't like to be regimented. I just try to be true to the music ... and connect with the audience.
"It's real authentic what I do," he said. "It's very acoustic, very real, very live. It's just me, my guitar and my harmonica."
For more information about John Carpino's music, log onto his website at johncarpino.com or call KRIM at (928) 468-5746 for his latest performance schedule.
Local artist Debra Farrell finds inspiration for her art, and her life, among the quiet stands of ponderosa pines that shade the countryside here.
She weaves pine needles into her work and rides horseback through the pines for fun.
"My two favorite things in the world are art and horses," said Farrell, wife of local radio station owner Mike Farrell. "I ride every day, and I've been perfecting my art for years."
Farrell, who was named Payson's best artist this year, has developed a unique art form that blends the delicate artistry of basket weaving with the primitive beauty of hand-built pottery.
Each pot, which can take weeks to make, is hand-built using traditional coil and slab techniques. It is then bisque-fired for strength and pit-fired for color.
She then fits the pottery with a customized collar of hand-woven pine needles, date palm strands and leather, and finishes the piece with decorative accents made with handmade beads, feathers, inlayed stones and fossils.
"I developed my own style over the years," she said. "I wanted it to be very Southwest. I started making the pottery first, and later I thought it would be fun to weave onto it. I'd seen some weaving that I liked, and I taught myself how to do it."
For the past seven years, Farrell's artwork has been available at the Bearcloud Gallery at Sedona's Tlaquepaque. It is now available in Payson through the artist.
Farrell, a Payson Art League member, won two blue ribbons and a people's choice award last November during the art league's fall show.
"It was so gratifying," she said, "because I've always been afraid to do my own show. It was so fun to meet the people who were buying my work and to see where some of it was going."
Payson residents will have another chance to view Farrell's work -- and the work of nearly 30 other local artists -- May 7, 8 and 9 during PAL's ‘Neath The Rim Studio Tour.
Meeting all the people who took last year's tour was truly gratifying and exciting, Farrell said.
"(They're) the people who mean the most to me -- the people in my own hometown. It's nice to know some of my pots are residing right here in the Payson area."
For more information about Farrell's artwork, log onto the Payson Art League's website at www.paysonartleague.com or call her at (928) 474-2509.
Payson Police Sgt. Donny Garvin has been chasing down criminals for 10 years, but he's best known around town, he says, for his off-duty pursuits.
"I'm nothing special," said Garvin, who was voted this year's top cop. "I don't think they voted for me because I work harder or do a better job than anyone else. They just know me from the things I do in the community."
Local elementary school students, parents and teachers know Garvin as one of the Payson Police Department's six DARE officers -- specially trained instructors who teach children the dangers of substance abuse. He's worked as a DARE officer for eight years, taught at all three public elementary schools and watched his first DARE students graduate from high school.
The athletes in the town's basketball, softball and volleyball leagues know Garvin as a dedicated competitor and, he said, a mediocre referee. He plays and officiates all three sports at the adult level and referees the basketball and baseball youth leagues.
Those who follow boys high school basketball know Garvin as the coach who led Payson's freshman team last year and the junior varsity team this year.
"That was an interesting two years," Garvin, a Payson High School graduate, said. "The same players who had a winning season on the freshman team had the opposite experience on the JV team. I think by now they should be fully emotionally prepared for the varsity level."
And people throughout the community know Garvin as the local coordinator for the Law Enforcement Torch Run for Special Olympics, a fund-raising and awareness campaign for the Special Olympics games in Phoenix. This year's torch run is in May.
Garvin said he wanted to be a police officer from the first moment he saw the 1970s television police drama "Adam 12."
"OK, no, I'm just kidding," he said.
Garvin's friends and colleagues know they can always count on him for a joke or wry remark.
"Seriously, I've always liked the idea of helping people," he said. "And as a child, I always thought of a police officer as a kind of role model.
"And now, when I do help someone -- in the form of an arrest, intervention or education -- it really makes the job worthwhile. I don't stay here for the great pay because the pay's not that great. I stay here because I enjoy working in a small community, I enjoy the people I work with and all the town activities, and I enjoy working with the public here."
Mindy Joslin, who's worked the front register at Walgreens for 14 years, figures most folks in town have passed by her post at one time or another.
"I've never met a stranger," she said. "The people here are not just my customers, they're my friends. That's why I enjoy my job so much."
Over the years, as Joslin has shuttled vitamins and soda pop and singing trout into grocery bags, she's gotten to know her neighbors and they've gotten to know her.
"A lot of people say they love to come in and see my smiling face," she said, "and, of course, I love to yak. I'll be talking to the person I'm ringing up, and before you know it, I'm talking with everyone in line."
Although Joslin normally delivers service with a smile, she's been known to pass out hugs as well.
"A few years back, they were talking about National Hug Day on the radio," she said, "so I thought ‘what the heck.' I hugged more than 200 people in one day -- some whether they liked it or not," she whispered with a conspiratorial laugh.
But Joslin -- who tied for best clerk with Mellody Blakeney of Giant -- has shared tears, as well as laughs, with her customers.
In 1997, when her husband of 35 years, Jack, died, they packed her mailbox with sympathy cards and stuffed her refrigerator with food.
"I got 53 cards from my customers, and I kept every one of them," she said. "We've helped each other through some tough times."
These days, Joslin is at home on medical leave to recuperate from back surgery, and Walgreens customers won't hear her customary "How ya doing today?" greeting until she returns to her post in late April or early May.
"I can't wait to get back to work," she said. "Sitting around here is driving me nuts."
Pictures of Joslin's three children, nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren compete for space in her east Payson home with the handmade crafts she's received from her customers throughout the years. They include a colorful model of an old-fashioned pharmacy, which, according to the storefront sign, is called "Mindy's Walgreens."
"My job, my customers and my kids -- they're what keep me going," she said. "When I'm blue, I'll think of something a customer has said, or look around at the things they've given me, and it makes life worthwhile. I love ‘em all."
Dr. Christopher LeSuer of Payson Healthcare became a patient on his way to private practice.
He contracted mosquito-borne encephalitis in Arkansas and collapsed in Texas as he and his youngest son were driving to Springerville, Ariz. where he intended to hang up his first shingle.
"My left arm went numb and the left side of my face went numb," he said, "and I thought, ‘Wow! This is some migraine.'"
He passed out in Texas and his 9-year-old son had to drive him to the next town. He later fell into a coma, was hospitalized for a week and spent three months learning to read again.
But in the end, LeSuer said, the time he spent in that drafty medical gown gave him a special empathy for his patients, and it made him a better doctor.
Patients want a doctor to be accessible, attentive and a good listener, he said, but their experience involves much more than their encounter with the doctor. They want to be able to get their lab results quickly and easily and they want to be able to talk to someone in the office if they need to. That all falls to the office staff.
"I have a great nurse, (Roxanne), and I think the patients generally like her more than they like me," he said. "They're always telling me to give her a raise. And I also have a great office staff."
LeSuer, who was named Payson's best doctor this year, moved to Payson in 1997 with his wife Linda. They have five sons, two grandsons, and much to his wife's delight, LeSuer said, two granddaughters.
"(A good doctor) needs to be a good listener and a good diagnostician or detective," he said. "The treatment part is easy -- you can look that up in a book -- but solving the problem -- the underlying diagnosis -- is key. He also needs good training, and he has to stay current. I try to read five journals a week to do that."
Patients really like to be educated, said LeSuer, who studied medicine at Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine in Missouri.
"I dictate before my patients leave so they can correct me if I haven't listened correctly or they need to fill in any gaps," he said. "By listening to me dictate, they can review the description of the problem and they can hear the logic of the approach and treatment.
"Listening to me dictate also reinforces what they're supposed to do -- it goes over it for them one more time. Initially, new patients sometimes think it's strange, but the patients I've seen for a while love that part of the encounter and it's important to them."
Suzanne Michaels has an infectious laugh and a smile -- shaped by the childhood torture of braces -- that crinkles her eyes and lights up a room.
Her happy, upbeat personality has been her standout feature since her classmates at Lutheran West High in Rocky River, Ohio voted her the "Friendliest Person in Class."
When describing Michaels in her yearbook -- and at just about any other time over the years -- people have generally trotted out the old champagne standards -- "bubbly," "sparkling" and "effervescent" -- stopping just short of "she tickles my nose."
Those qualities -- nose tickling included -- have served Michaels well throughout her 24-year radio career. She spent the bulk of that time as an on-air personality for a classic rock ‘n' roll station in Reno, Nev. before moving to Payson and 1420 KMOG AM.
For the past three years, between the weekday hours of 6 a.m. and 11:30 a.m., Michaels has perked up Payson's morning commute.
"People tell me ‘I don't know what I would do without you,'" she said. "They say, ‘you get me going in the morning. You're my cup of coffee.' That kind of thing makes me feel good."
Although Michaels is easygoing by nature, she never leaves her show to chance. She's in bed by 9 p.m., up by 3:30 a.m. and at work by 4 a.m. to make sure she has time to prepare for show time at 6 a.m.
"I strive to keep the show fresh and to keep people interested," she said. "I prepare for all of my shows, and I don't ever play the same song in a week. That's my rule. There's enough variety out there to mix it up."
Michaels, who's been named Payson's friendliest person three years in a row, said she's just doing what comes naturally.
"I've always been fun loving," she said, "and I enjoy being happy. Plus, this is the best job in the whole world. KMOG is like a family -- a home away from home."
Michaels moved to Payson after her father died five years ago so she could share her home away from work with her mother, Audrey Holibaugh.
"She's my biggest fan, and she's my role model," said Michaels, who has two grown children of her own. "We just hold each other up. There just aren't enough hours in the day to spend as much time as I'd like with my family."
When she's not working, Michaels loves to travel but tends to get lost; she loves to visit the library, but can't sit still; and she allows for only one vice -- getting her nails done.
But on or off work, she doesn't stress over the little things.
"Everyone makes mistakes," she said, "but people will laugh with you. At some point while you're on the air, you'll inevitably get the giggles or sneeze or hiccup, but people will just laugh along. Sometimes the flubs are the funniest things. I was reading a vet ad one time, and when I tried to say ‘flea and tick,' it came out as ‘tea and flick.'"
That gave people a tickle.
When Kelly Sterling is bartending at the Oxbow Saloon, each barstool is as sacred a place as a confessional.
"People know they can talk with me," she said, "and whatever they say to me, stays with me. They know I'm not a talker. Whatever they say is confidential."
Although the tips are better at night, Sterling, a single mother of three, works days so she can spend time with her children and shuttle them to school and sporting events.
"I had to sacrifice days for nights with the kids," she said, "but I love the people who come in. I have lots of repeat customers, and I make friends with everyone. It's a lot of fun."
She has an easy smile and she likes to joke with the guys, but her job isn't all fun and games.
"I look at it as a serious job, too," said Sterling, who was named best bartender this year. "When I say enough, that's it. I have to make sure people have fun but don't get carried away. The scariest thing I ever did was work at the German Cowboy when it was really getting rough." The German Cowboy, near the corner of Beeline and Bonita, has since changed hands and is now the Buffalo Bar and Grill.
In her spare time, Sterling likes to ride motorcycles, go off-roading with her children and cheer them on at their sporting events.
Last November, with the help of a friend, Barbie Hensler, Sterling coordinated a motorcycle poker run to benefit the Rim Country Arizonans for Children, Inc. -- a nonprofit organization that helps childhood victims of negligence or abuse.
"Forty-five of the children were Rim kids, and the majority of them were under the age of 5," she said. "We pulled the event together in three weeks -- just in time for Christmas -- and raised about $1,500 plus toys.
"The local businesses pitched right in," she said. "I really appreciate the business owners who've helped us with our charity work. I think this community is great."
According to her customers, Yvonne Webster is the kind of waitress who will pour a regular's favorite drink when she spots her in the parking lot and have it ready when she walks through the door.
"I drink iced tea and my husband drinks coffee," customer Barb Tulleys said. "She'll see us pull up, and she'll go get it."
"She's fast, efficient and she remembers what you want without having to ask," customer Donnie Haught added.
Webster, a mother of four and a Payson native, has been serving up food and friendship at the Knotty Pine Café for 12 years.
"Yvonne wants to help everyone," longtime friend Julie Wantland said. "She loves people, and she loves her customers.
"She's dynamic. You meet her and you automatically want to get to know her. She's just really easy to talk to."
No matter how hectic the job gets, Webster always takes the time to talk with her customers.
"She's fantastic," Tulleys said. "She always has a good attitude, and she makes everyone feel like family. She makes people feel really special and important."
Respect and a sense of humor are key ingredients for the job, said Webster, who was named Payson's best waitress this year.
"I believe the customers deserve to be treated with respect and get things the way they want," she said. "I also have a lot of love and respect for the people I work with.
"Respect for the boss, on the other hand, is optional," she said good-naturedly. "As long as I'm having fun, that's all that matters."
When Webster is having fun, Tulleys said, so is everyone else.
"She's fun loving and she loves to joke around," she said. "She definitely makes people smile and just adds to everyone's day. She has a way of taking your mind off your troubles. You can go in there with the weight of the world on your shoulders and leave laughing."
And when the fun stops, Webster said, her customers see her through.
"The people here are really special," she said. "When you're having a bad day, there are always those regulars who can walk in and make everything OK. And when they're having a bad day, and they tell you they came down for lunch just to see you -- that makes it all worthwhile."