CHAMPAIGN — If you've ever flown out of Willard Airport, there's a good chance you've met Paty Stipes.
"She is that helpful one at the American Airlines counter greeting almost everyone by name and providing help and making sure that all the connections down the line are going smoothly," said Jayne DeLuce, president of Visit Champaign County.
At the annual Toast to Tourism celebration Wednesday at the I Hotel and Conference Center, Stipes was among four others recognized with a Tourism Impact award "for your lifelong commitment to treating everyone as a first-class customer," DeLuce said.
Growing up in Urbana, Stipes flew regularly to Bolivia, where her parents are from, and her frequent travels led her to study travel and tourism at Parkland College.
Not long after she graduated, American Airlines announced in 1988 that it would be adding flights to the University of Illinois-owned airport, and Stipes was hired as a customer service agent.
She went to the American Airlines Academy in Dallas for customer service training.
"I got placed in Champaign right away, so I'm like, 'Wow, my family's here, so this works out terrific,'" Stipes said.
And she has been at Willard since the current terminal opened in 1990.
"A lot of these people that are here I put on flights," Stipes said. "They're almost like extended family. They really are. They come back and tell you stories from their vacations. It's an honor that they get to share that with me."
Justin Seno, the associate director of gift planning with the University of Illinois Foundation, nominated Stipes and said he has gotten to know her from flying out of Willard at least once a month.
"Anytime I've had an issue or not, she's been great to work with. She makes traveling that much more easy," Seno said. "She just does a good job of, if an issue comes up, trying to solve it and do it with a smile and grace, and it's always been a good experience."
Real-estate agent Max Mitchell also nominated Stipes, saying in his letter that she "helps the seasoned traveler, as well as the not-so-seasoned traveler, feel special as they leave Champaign-Urbana."
Stipes received the Tourism Impact award along with:
— The Champaign County History Museum, which has rebounded since 2015, when it was in financial trouble.
— Sam Issa, the owner of Sam's Cafe in downtown Champaign for 32 years.
— Cindy Reynolds, operations assistant at the William M. Staerkel Planetarium at Parkland College, whose programs include a tour of the night sky and Pink Floyd laser shows.
— Mike Ross, director since 1997 of Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary.