And the Nominees Are ...

The ATHENA Awards celebrate the best, brightest and most generous in the community

Feb 18, 2010

Every year for the past thirteen years, ATHENA Award committee members have had a tough choice to make. After an intensive nomination process, a panel of judges, made up of various community members, including last year’s ATHENA recipient, decides who will receive the award.

“These people are unbelievable,” says Merri Oxley, member of the ATHENA committee. “It’s really hard to pick one.”

The ATHENA Award program honors women and men who have achieved excellence in their profession, devoted time and energy to improve the quality of life for others, and helped women realize their full leadership potential. It’s the main fundraising event for The Business Forum, with proceeds going toward scholarships for women seeking higher education, particularly those who are going back at an older age, rather than those straight out of high school.

“Very few scholarships are available to women in that capacity,” says Barb Waters, a member of the ATHENA committee. “We have awarded more than $280,000 in scholarships to women since we started our scholarship program.”

This year’s ATHENA Awards event, held March 16 at the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center, features keynote speaker Sue Ann Thompson, former First Lady of Wisconsin and founder and president of the Wisconsin Women’s Health Foundation. Leigh Mills, co-anchor of NBC-15’s evening news, serves as host.

Barb James, co-chair of the ATHENA committee, says the event is great for both fundraising and recognition of the community’s “unsung heroes.”

“We want to celebrate all of the nominees,” says Waters, noting the event recognizes the accomplishments of each of the nominees, not just the recipient.

The nominees being honored this year are:

William P. Barlow

As leader of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, as well as employee development manager, at Madison Area Technical College, Barlow is responsible for the professional development of the students at MATC.

“When people leave they feel like their needs have been met,” says Linda Reinhart, his nominator. “You meet him and your life is better for taking the time to shake the man’s hand and talk.”

Barlow previously served as the head teacher in the Performing Arts department, where he produced, designed and directed more than twenty-five productions and helped plan new theater facilities and courses in the department. He was also a guest critic for the Wisconsin High School Theater Festival for twenty years and a board member and president for the Alliance for Wisconsin Theater Educators.

Reinhart said Barlow spends countless hours at his job in addition to his contributions to the community and devotion to his family.

“In all my years, I’ve never met anyone like him,” Reinhart says. “He really is a one man show.”

Donna Beestman

Beestman is the president Career Success Strategies, which she founded in 2004. Here, she works with professionals who are facing a crossroads in their careers by helping them build professional networks and develop career advancement strategies.

“My life work is really about helping people move on and make decisions of what they want to do when changes happen in their careers,” Beestman says.

Prior to living in Madison and starting Career Success Stragegies, Beestman lived in Delaware, where she assisted two governors in forming their transition teams. Most recently, she helped re-engineer the UW Alumni Association’s career services, including assistance in the development of the new online jobs tool, Badger Career Network.

In addition to committing herself to other professionally, Beestman has donated her time to the Downtown Rotary, Tempo, The Business Forum, Madison Area Business Consultants, her church and delivering presentations to a number of groups, including the Wisconsin Leadership Development Institute and the UW School of Human Ecology.

Laurie Benson

After selling her award-winning business, Inacom Information Systems, where she was founder and CEO for almost twenty-five years, Benson established another company, LB Unlimited! and continues to work with student and adult entrepreneurs, give presentations and serve on countless area committees and boards.

“Her accomplishments preceded her,” says Ruth Rolich, her nominator and project director for Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corporation, when talking about the first time she met Benson. “I was just blown away by how personable she was in being such an accomplished person … She cares so much about women succeeding in their small businesses.”

Rolich says when she heard of the ATHENA Award program, she thought Benson had already won it because the description for recipient matches her so well.

In addition to her success professionally, Benson brought to Wisconsin the first “Make Mine a Million Business” contest, which focuses on helping women grow their businesses into million-dollar companies. She also volunteers with the new UW Student Venture Seed Grant Program Selection Committee to support student entrepreneurs.

Beyond her successes, Rolich said Benson is overall an amazingly fun, sweet and genuine person to be around.

“If she only meets you once, she’ll remember you a year later,” Rolich adds.

Ann Eaves

A master gardener with a passion for helping low-income families find housing, Eaves serves as the president of the Board for Habitat for Humanity of Dane County. She previously was the director of asset management and chief financial officer at Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority.

“She’s been a dedicated supporter of resolving housing issues in Dane county,” says Loretta Himmelsbach, her nominator and coworker at Habitat for Humanity.

Himmelsbach says many Habitat families are single women and children who need “a hand up rather than a hand out” and Eaves helps them during the transition from renting to home ownership through providing classes on gardening and other homeowner responsibilities. She’s also secured a grant to develop the Twin Oaks community garden and runs an annual plant sale that raises around $5,000 to help families with their new yards.

“What strikes me about Ann is that she’s very humble,” Himmelsbach says. “She truly works, not for the recognition of herself, but for the recognition of the agency and for the families.”

Indeed, when asked what she thinks about her nomination, Eaves responds, “Oh, I don’t think I have a chance at this!”

In addition to helping over one hundred Habitat families, Eaves has taught English as a second language; volunteers at Olbrich Botanical Gardens, the Social Justice Center and the Wisconsin Apprentice Organizers Project; and built houses in El Salvador in 2007 for Humanity International.

Dr. Barbara O’Connell

Serving as director of Pediatric and Adolescent Gynecology at University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics, O’Connell goes beyond her professional duties to improve women’s health.

“She’s unparalleled,” says Suzanne Zentner, her nominator. “She knows no boundaries with her work. She will do whatever she can within her power to improve the health of her patients.”

O’Connell previously was director of Women’s Health Services at Meriter Hospital. She graduated from the UW–Madison Medical School and trained at Harvard School of Public Health and Boston’s Children’s Hospital.

In her nomination letter, Zentner wrote, “Dr. O’Connell’s level of service is, in my mind, already impressive enough, but then add to that her many further accomplishments, including numerous publications, local and national presentations, professional activities and committee participation (in excess of one hundred) and you will see a woman who, by any definition, is an exceptionally rare find.”

O’Connell is described as having a global vision with a perspective of both Western and Eastern schools of thought.

Sarah Zylstra

As a partner in Boardman Law Firm, Zylstra focuses on general and commercial litigation. She also serves as president of the Western District of the Wisconsin Bar Association.

“I was so surprised,” Zylstra says of her nomination. “When I see the other nominees each year, I always think of these amazing people in our community who are out doing these amazing things. I don’t put myself in that category.”

An active member of the YWCA, Zylstra says she has always thought in terms of giving back to her community and has been, especially with the advancement of women. Through the Girls, Inc. program, Zylstra encourages girls to be strong, smart and bold, which she says is a simple idea of what we want for the young people and young girls in our society.

“With the state of the world, sometimes it can be depressing,” she says. “It’s important to celebrate the good.”

Zylstra has also devoted her time to the International Crane foundation, judged at the State Bar of Wisconsin Mock Trial Tournament and organized the Boardman Law Firm’s “Family to Family” Christmas event.

The ATHENA Awards are held at 5:30 p.m. on March 16 at the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center. Individual tickets are $75, corporate tables of eight are $750 and non-profit tables of eight are $600. Tickets can be purchased at, over the phone at 443-2486 x14, or via e-mail at by March 5.

Becky Vevea is an editorial intern at Madison Magazine.

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