WESTERLY — Lifelong Pawcatuck resident Michael J. Spellman, the chief of police for the City of Groton whose long career in law enforcement included stints as a Connecticut State policeman, was honored Wednesday night with the Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce's prestigious Citizen of the Year award during the chamber's annual meeting held at Venice restaurant.
"He's a hometown hero," said Chamber President Lisa Konicki. "He's part of the fabric of the community."
"I am deeply humbled," Spellman told the roomful of people after he accepted a number of gifts, citations and awards. "As I look around this room I see so many people who do things for others ... do the good stuff ... I owe so much to so many others ... so many others in this room."
In addition to chamber members, the guests included members of Spellman's family; his brothers, Jim and Steven, fellow police officers, and dignitaries and public officials from Westerly and Stonington.
"I want to thank my wife, Heather," Spellman said, choking up a bit as he spoke. "It's only because of her that I am here. She is my rock."
Spellman went on to pay tribute to his late parents and his late sister. His mother, he said, always told him, if wanted to collect anything, "collect people."
The evening began with a moment of silence for Joseph Cugini, last year's Key Award winner and a former Citizen of the Year, who died last week.
During a video tribute, shown just before the award was presented, Spellman was described as a man with integrity, honesty, courage and compassion by friends, colleagues and family members.
Several people commented on Spellman's generosity, leadership and commitment to his hometown — a man "who believes passionately in giving back."
Susan Sedensky, executive director of the Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center, spoke of Spellman's care of "the hidden poor."
Mia Byrnes, who owns Mia's Cafe in downtown Pawcatuck, said Spellman was a familiar face downtown.
And Spellman's wife, Heather, said, "He's a proud Pawcatuck kid. He is my rock."
Konicki added: "He is genuine, well-intentioned and has pride for his neighborhood."
Jim Spellman, Mike's older brother and a former Westerly High School administrator, described him as "self-motivated."
Spellman, who served as a selectman in the Town of Stonington from December 2014 to November 2017, has served as a volunteer coach for the Groton Mystic Falcons Football League, as a member of the Permanent Columbus Day Parade Committee, as a mentor for the Westerly Public Schools, and as a judge for the Mystic Irish Parade. He is also known as a strong supporter of Stonington's public schools and served as a member of the West Broad Street School Use Committee.
Also honored Wednesday were three Key Award recipients: Vincent Bartucca, Nico DiMaggio and William Furguson.
When the chamber made the announcement earlier this year, Konicki said that Spellman was the unanimous choice of the selection committee for the award, often called "the highest-profile honor in our community." Beth Frenette, chairman of the board of the chamber, called Spellman an exceptional community leader.
The Citizen of the Year award was established in 1957 to recognize "outstanding leadership and exceptional contributions to the Westerly-Pawcatuck community."
Criteria for selection include the candidate's leadership role in the community and specific contributions in business, civic or nonprofit organizations promoting the community image and improving the quality of life in the area, as well as personal and professional characteristics such as integrity, creativity, communication skills and broad social perspectives. Last year's winner was Westerly financial adviser Malcolm Makin, one of the major fundraisers for the Ocean Community YMCA.
Spellman and his wife, Heather, have been married for 28 years and have two children, Mike and Hannah.
Spellman has made a life of public service and empowering others. As selectman, he donated 100 percent of his earnings as a public official to the Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center and was instrumental in the collaboration of Stonington and Westerly in executing the Bricks and Murals program in 2017. He was also a leader in the push toward bringing internet service to downtown Pawcatuck.
He has testified before Congress in support of the Stonington fishing fleet, and was a backer of Wild and Scenic status for rivers in the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed, a designation that was signed into federal law in March.
Spellman said he was working on bringing to the City of Groton the Citizens with Autism Safety System, which Stonington adopted in 2017.
The system, which won a Connecticut Conference of Municipalities Award, helps police and emergency services personnel locate missing people who have autism and provides training on how to interact with them when found.
When Spellman and his wife arrived at the Venice, before the program began, they were greeted by music played by kilt-wearing bagpiper Pat Whelan of Glastonbury, Conn.