Over the Thanksgiving holiday, two Ohio County educators had extra-special reasons to be thankful: for hearing a host of inspiring stories, for an outpouring of goodwill from their colleagues and for a ton of loot from Oprah Winfrey!
On Nov. 2, Kathleen Bowers, a Washington, Pa., resident who is employed by Ohio County Schools as a gifted specialist at Wheeling Middle School and Steenrod and Bethlehem elementary schools, nominated her friend and colleague, Becky Sinclair, a Wheeling resident and a library-media specialist at Wheeling Middle School and Ritchie Elementary School, for recognition in Winfrey's project, "A Hero We Should Know."
"I've always found Becky to be an inspiration. Her eyes are truly open to the needs of others," Bowers explained.
A few days later, on Nov. 7, Bowers received an e-mail from the audience coordinator of Winfrey's syndicated television show informing her that she and Sinclair were invited to attend a Nov. 16 taping of the show in Chicago. The next morning, Bowers called Sinclair and broke the news of the nomination and their selection as audience members. "Becky was pretty embarrassed and shocked when I told her," Bowers recalled.
Little did they know that their shock was only just beginning. They made arrangements to fly to Chicago Nov. 15 and stay overnight in a hotel before heading off to the Harpo Studios for the show's taping early in the morning of Nov. 16. After several hours of preparation and waiting, they and the other audience members were led to believe that the show would be dedicated to Oprah's heroes and ultimate fans. It wasn't until five minutes into the taping that Winfrey revealed that it was her "ultimate favorite things" show and that everyone in the audience would be receiving all of the favorite things as gifts.
"We were very unsuspecting," Bowers said of the time leading up to Winfrey's big surprise. During the warm-up period prior to the taping, show officials had some of the nominators and heroes practice telling their inspiring accounts. Winfrey came onstage and started talking about meditation; she urged the audience members to close their eyes and "let's meditate on this."
At that moment, Sinclair said, "the jingle bells started," Winfrey pulled off her outer garment to reveal a bright red dress and the curtains opened to a scene from Santa's workshop. People started screaming, and "it was an instant of being transported to another place," Bowers said.
Sinclair likened the experience to being in a dream. Winfrey also "was genuinely excited. She was just thrilled to do this," Sinclair added. "It was remarkable."
After rounds of Winfrey announcing her "ultimate favorite things," it was time for the climactic gifts. A "FedEx elf" emerged; he pumped up an inflatable cruise ship and a fake airplane soared above the ship. "It was such bombardment that you can't take it all in," Bowers commented. "It was such a moment."
As if all that were not entertaining enough, the Black Eyed Peas performed in a giant snow globe. Then the show's producer told the crowd that everyone was sworn to secrecy; the guests could only tell family and friends that they were in the audience for the "heroes and ultimate fans" episode, tentatively set to air Nov. 19. A legal adviser and a tax accountant from Harpo Studios explained that the gifts were considered taxable income and would be reported to the Internal Revenue Service. On the bright side, however, a tax account would be set up for each person; a "good faith value" would be established for each gift and Harpo Studios would pay all of the applicable taxes for the guests.
The top gifts that Bowers and Sinclair and their audience mates received were a Royal Caribbean Allure of the Seas seven-day cruise, round-trip flights on United Airlines to the cruise ship and a Sony Brevia 52-inch, high-definition television with 3D feature.
The other "ultimate favorite things" that they received were as follows: Andre Walker hair care products; Baker's Edge baking pan; boxes of Ghiradelli double-chocolate brownie mix; Baker's Edge lasagna pan; Beecher's "World's Best" Mac 'n Cheese; Breville panini press; "Decoded," a book by Jay-Z: Elfa customized closet system from The Container Store; five-year Netflix membership; Kiva gift card; Kyocera ceramic cutlery set; limited-edition, 25th-anniversary Oprah watch by Philip Stein; Judith Ripka Eclipse earrings; Lafco House and Home Collection candle set; Lululemma relaxed-fit pants; Nike Free Run+ shoes; Nikon D31000 digital SLR camera; "Season 25" shirt from the O Store; "The Beginning," the Black Eyed Peas' new recording; Tory tote and Reva ballerine flats shoes by Tony Burch; "A Course in Weight Loss," a book by Marianne Williamson; and cashmere sweater and cashmere cable throw by Ralph Lauren.
Each guest left the studio with large, unmarked bags concealing three "Oprah's favorite things" shopping bags filled with some of their goodies. The rest of the gifts are being shipped to them; plus, they must book their cruise within the next year. Sinclair and Bowers had to purchase an extra suitcase and hurriedly repack their loot before taking a flight back to Pittsburgh.
Later, they learned that the audience for the second taping of Winfrey's show that day also received "ultimate favorite things." The second surprise show aired Nov. 22. Those guests received the same prizes, with a few exceptions: each person got a car instead of a cruise and an iPad instead of a TV.
After the local educators' secret was revealed when the show was broadcast, "the school community has been so joyful for us ... It's been much more than we could have expected," Bowers said. Sinclair added, "We've gotten some wonderful comments, lots of wonderful, supportive comments."
That support and the experience of hearing inspirational stories from the other "heroes" has been more meaningful than receiving the gifts, Bowers concluded.
Linda Comins can be reached via e-mail at: Comins@news-register.net