Sporting long gowns, elegant elbow-length gloves, sequins, dashing top hats and suave scarves, the attendees at the annual Black and White Ball oozed charm and grace as Rim Country residents channeled Old Hollywood to support the Mogollon Health Alliance (MHA).
The yearly event honors the efforts of an organization that has shaped the town of Payson.
As one of Rim Country’s few polish-off-the-tux-and-pull-out-the-diamonds events, community members who attend often show another side of themselves when they cut the rug, show surprise over scruffy friends cleaned up, gossip, laugh and tell stories.
Robert Higginbotham of Payson Jewelers, a major donor, remembered the early days of the event at Fargo’s when it was billed as “Dinner with a Celebrity.”
“I dressed as Elvis one year,” he said. “We used to take over the whole restaurant.”
He and his wife Melissa donated one of the two pendants given away in a drawing at the end of the evening.
Their piece, called the Journey Pendant, had a 14-carat white gold setting that held a cascading curve of three-quarter carat diamonds in graduated sizes.
“I picked that design because we all go through a journey,” said Melissa.
The couple chose to dress in the style of old Westerns. Robert wore a huge 10-gallon cowboy hat.
Sanja Long, CEO of the MHA, played the part of hostess perfectly in a long white and silver sparkly gown.
“Ticket sales supports the MHA, while the donations to the silent auction supports the Rim Country Educational Alliance,” she said.
Her duties did leave her time to take numerous spins out on the dance floor with her partner Carl Anthony who holds a weekly dance clinic in Tiny’s for those who wish to learn how to ballroom dance.
Also hosting a weekly dance clinic and another donor to the event, Dimi Espresso Café owner Tom Pletz came to the event with three dance partners — Ruth Hill, Jennifer Hagen and Veronica Volk. He aimed to win title of Best Dancer, but must have confused the judges with his swirl of partners.
Instead, Larry and Shirley Bertram took home the prize, a replica statue of the Oscar.
When asked how they decided who would dance with Pletz and when they would dance, the group of ladies blithely explained that they got along splendidly.
“We’re easy to get along with,” said Hill.
Health care in Rim Country
The group’s spirit of cooperation modeled the MHA in its commitment to bringing safety, security and health to Rim Country.
In the 1950s, the Rim Country had about 1,000 residents, but no doctor, according to “Fifty-five Years of Health in the Rim Country and the Mogollon Health Alliance,” by Carol La Valley.
Local pharmacist Don Manthe provided medical services with the help of doctors on the phone, but women having babies usually chose to either drive a half day to Phoenix on a dirt road, or two and a half hours to Cottonwood.
By 1954, the women in Rim Country had had enough. They wanted a safe place to have their children closer to home.
By 1957, the Payson Junior Womans Club and the community had raised enough money to secure a loan to purchase land and build a clinic.
Doctor David Gilbert, his wife Martha and their two toddler sons Jeff and Doug moved to Payson in the summer of 1957 to serve as the Rim Country’s first dedicated doctor.
Since those humble beginnings, the MHA has grown to build the hospital, support medicine and education and provide scholarships in the area.
Last year, the MHA received a grant to bring remote education through computers and equipment to school districts in Pine, Tonto Basin, Payson and Heber-Overgaard.
The MHA also grants scholarships to nursing students at Gila Community College.
Since the ’50s the community has had events to support the health of Rim Country, the Black and White Ball being the most recent.
Melissa Overman, of Overman designs, is a relative newcomer to supporting the MHA, but she and her husband Chad, have embraced the Black and White Ball to become major supporters.
Melissa got into the Old Hollywood theme wearing a long gown covered in sequins.
The petite jewelry designer said the pendant she and her husband picked came from their Black and White collection.
“It is made from white diamonds and black rhodium,” she said as she introduced the piece to the audience before announcing the winner of the drawing.
The event, the organizers and donors are just another example of the community pulling together to make the Rim Country a glorious and healthy place to live.