Stephanie Penick has been a lot of things to a lot of people: a creative writer for a New York City ad agency, a custom cake designer, a first-grade teacher for needy students in St. Thomas, a Daily Herald columnist, founder and publisher of Positively Naperville, and a wife to her husband, Jim, and mother to their three children.
Tonight she adds Fairest Lady in all of Naperville to her already extensive resume.
That's when she will become the third recipient of the annual Fair Lady Award, presented by Fair Lady Productions Inc., as a business woman who has made a difference in the Naperville community through her contributions and commitment to the arts.
Kandiss Hernandez, founder and executive director of Fair Lady Productions Inc., the not-for-profit parent company to Kidz Kabaret, said she designed the award in memory of her grandmother to "acknowledge women deserving recognition for their tireless efforts to support community arts organizations."
The women first met in 2002 when Penick volunteered to work in the box office at Cross Roads Theater. Hernandez said Penick has been her friend and mentor ever since.
"(Stephanie) believes, as I do, that when you build the arts up in your city, it also builds business. The arts do a very good job at that," Hernandez said. "It's civic leadership that she provides by knowing that the arts can do that."
Hernandez said the leadership Penick has shown her and countless others also made her a "clear-cut winner" for the award.
"She knows this city like the back of her hand, and I've listened to her advice on maybe turning right instead of left and the politics of how to stay in the background yet stay instrumental," Hernandez said.
"Stephanie is a master of that. She puts everyone else forward and makes everyone else look amazing as she stands in the back. That's worked very well for her. People gravitate toward powerful people who can make a difference, and that's Stephanie."
Mayor George Pradel, who will help present tonight's award, thinks so highly of Penick, he nominated her for the Illinois Women of Achievement award in 2000, which she also won.
"I don't know if there's a more respected person throughout all of Naperville," Pradel said. "Stephanie is everywhere, she knows everyone and everyone loves her for the way she supports this community."
Penick's road to Naperville and publishing the well-established magazine Positively Naperville began at the age of 10 in Muncie, Ind., when she published her first newspaper, The Rolling Oaks Extra. After college, she landed a "dream job" in New York City, working her way up from secretary for creative directors to copywriter at a boutique advertising agency.
In her spare time, she decorated cakes, a hobby that led to the opening of her very own shop, Creative Cakes, on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Her cakes caught the attention of "Good Morning, America," "The Mike Douglas Show" and the "Today" show. "Creative Cakes," the book, was published by Random House in 1978.
Her husband, Jim Penick, whom she married in 1978, said the late fashion photographer Richard Avedon once summed up his wife in three words by describing her cake art.
"He looked at her and said, 'You're a genius,'" Jim Penick said. "And he was right."
She sold the cake shop in 1986 and, in 1993, the Penicks and their three children -- Ashley, Timothy and Jeffrey -- moved to Naperville to be closer to her Indiana family.
Soon after arriving, Penick began an 18-month stint working with former Naper Settlement Director Peggy Frank in the museum's marketing office.
"I had the wonderful opportunity to meet Stephanie when she first arrived in Naperville and hire her to work at Naper Settlement. As Stephanie got to know more people and reached out to the community, she was always enthusiastically promoting Naper Settlement. But her enthusiasm went beyond the written word to her exuberance with anything she was asked to do," Frank said.
"She is an extremely positive person who makes a difference by using her skills to share her upbeat outlook with others. As a community, we were truly blessed that Stephanie decided to call Naperville home. And I am as happy as can be that it all started at Naper Settlement."
Penick was mentored into the Rotary Club of Naperville in 1996 and her career in volunteerism was launched. Through the years, she has been involved in several local organizations, including the Waubonsie Valley High School Orchestra Parents, NCTV-17, Naperville Area Chamber of Commerce, downtown marketing groups, Naperville Visitors Bureau and Riverwalk Fundraising Campaigns.
In 1999, Penick got back to her early newspaper days and her "Around Naperville" column debuted in the Daily Herald. Jim Davis, the paper's news director for DuPage County and the Fox Valley, called Penick the "face of the Daily Herald" to many in Naperville.
"Since 1999, Stephanie has been writing about the people and places that make Naperville special. Not only that, she's the most visible Daily Herald representative in town through her myriad volunteer efforts, which have included Rotary, Naper Settlement, Riverwalk, (and) others," Davis said.
"Virtually every time I've been at a community event or festival in Naperville -- Ribfest, Last Fling, Classic Car Show -- I've bumped into Stephanie. And all those times she was working as a volunteer or helping out in some fashion."
Davis said Penick also has been a booster for the Daily Herald, even to the point of passing along reader complaints about deliveries and such.
"I wish we could have a Stephanie Penick in every town we cover," he said.
During 2001's Last Fling, Penick launched her Positively Naperville.
For the past 12 years, the monthly publication has previewed special events, performing arts and worthy causes throughout the city, while being sponsored by local independent business owners.
"When Stephanie made the decision to leave the settlement and move on to new opportunities, little did we know that she would continue to promote Naper Settlement to an even larger audience through her new venture, Positively Naperville," Frank said.
"For that we are definitely grateful. The title of her publication truly encompasses Stephanie's attitude toward life."
Ray Kinney, local philanthropist and president of Minuteman Press, met Penick "many, many, many years ago" when she was working at the settlement and he was a volunteer with the chamber. Kinney said he is honored to serve as the evening's master of ceremonies on the night his friend receives her award.
"I think the one thing about Stephanie is that she has dedicated a significant portion of her life to promoting our community in a positive way, and looking for very little credit in that endeavor," Kinney said.
"She is constantly promoting others and pointing out the good things others do in our community and wants none of the limelight."
Penick is so careful of her image and not seeking adulation, Kinney was her first telephone call before deciding whether to accept the award.
"She was concerned about the fact that she just doesn't like that stuff," Kinney said. "But I told her this was a unique award highlighting women who have given of themselves to promote other things. That is just embedded in her being. She had to accept this award."
Nancy Quigley, owner of Quigley's Irish Pub, met Penick about six years ago when the two helped form the Downtown Rotary. Quigley agreed the award was created for someone like Stephanie.
"I have never known anyone to work so hard in my whole life. She is a very moral, just one of the most morally correct persons I've ever met," Quigley said.
"She certainly is Naperville's Fair Lady. She deserves it. She just does what she thinks is right, and doing the right thing, she thinks, shouldn't win awards. But I'm happy she's getting it."
Jim Penick's also happy to see his wife finally receiving the accolades instead of giving them. He compared his wife to the finest of wines.
"She's not yet there, and just keeps getting better," he said. "Stephanie would be the first to say that she is no different from many other women, past or present, taking on all tasks before them."