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WORLD FOCUS: Prentis Award winners named

June 8, 2017
By FRANK SHATZ , Lake Placid News

The College of William and Mary could not have chosen more fitting recipients for its 2017 Prentis Award than Tom and Mary Ellen Power.

The Powers are the founders and owners, together with their three children Tom Power, Jr., Mary Ellen Power, Jr. and Cathy Power, of the iconic spot, The Cheese Shop and the award-winning Fat Canary restaurant on Merchants Square.

As President Taylor Reveley said in his presentation, "The award is named for a colonial family, the Prentises, whose 18th-century shop on Duke of Gloucester Street was a hub of colonial life. The Prentis shop was 'known for its fair wages, good merchandise and sound innovative business practices,' and the Prentis couple, who established their shop in 1720, were named, of course, William and Mary."

He noted that through generations, members of the Prentis family remained staunch supporters and fast friends of the community and William & Mary. "Thus, the Prentis Award honors individuals who have been our strong advocates - and, when necessary, our though critics - but always our dear friends," he said.

When Reveley, tongue-in-check, described how Tom Power's keen marketing sense led him to aim his shop's oven vents toward the W&M campus so the aroma of freshly baked bread would waft toward the students and draw them to the freshly made sandwiches, he talked to the converted. The Wren's Great Hall, the site of the award ceremony, was packed with people most of whom were once and still are the beneficiaries of the Powers' culinary delights.

The Power family's achievements, however, go beyond simply serving great food.

As Tom Power noted in his acceptance speech, in the 1960s he worked in sales for the NCR Co.

"One day I sold a register to a small cheese shop in the Village of Cross Keys, Maryland," he said. "That shop inspired us to open our own business back in Virginia, in Newport News. ... In the beginning it was mostly just Mary Ellen and me working in the shop. Frankly, we didn't have many customers."

Then one day, Barbara Humelsine of Williamsburg, happened to stop by. She told her mother, Mary, about the new cheese shop. She, in turn, suggested to her husband, Carlisle Humelsine, the president of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, that it would be a good idea to have a specialty cheese shop on Merchants Square.

"We soon received a phone call from CW," Tom Power said. "Our Williamsburg shop opened in 1973, it was small, 600 square feet."

Since then, the Cheese Shop has been enlarged several times. It was enhanced by the addition of the Fat Canary restaurant, one of Williamsburg's finest dining venues that has been recognized with Triple A's Four Diamond Award each year since its founding in 2003. Both establishments employ more than 80 staffers and during its decades of existence, as many as 1,000 William & Mary students.

In addition to the multitude of faculty and students from the college, there were four presidents, Tom Graves, Paul Verkuil, Tim Sullivan and Taylor Reveley, who have been steady customers at the Cheese Shop. President Sullivan became known as a connoisseur of fine wines. Once, I asked him where his knowledge of fine wines comes from.

"From Tom Power," he said. "His expertise is outstanding."

When it comes to bestowing credit, Tom Power is not far behind. In his acceptance speech, he said, "The best decision I ever made in my life was to marry this girl, Mary Ellen Edwards, 56 years ago. We both grew up in Norfolk, Virginia, but we didn't meet each other until I was in college. I am so lucky to have Mary Ellen. She's the love of my life, and she's the brain behind our business."

I wonder whether President Reveley was refering to this sense of Mary Ellen when he said, "Mary Ellen was struck by a divine inspiration that led her to turn an old family recipe into the Cheese Shop's now intergalactically famous house dressing."

Whatever is the secret, the Powers proved that America is still the land of opportunity.

Frank Shatz's column was reprinted with permission from the Virginia Gazette. Shatz is a Lake Placid seasonal resident. He is the author of "Reports from a Distant Place," a compilation of his selected columns.



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