A bridge-builder between Salem churches, neighborhoods named First Citizen

A retiring nonprofit leader who’s had a hand in making Salem a more welcoming, well-connected city over almost three decades has been named First Citizen.

Sam Skillern, executive director of the Salem Leadership Foundation, will receive the honor this year from the Salem Area Chamber of Commerce at their 73rd First Citizen Awards Banquet on April 13.

The annual event recognizes Salemites who have made the community a better place to work and live through service, volunteerism and philanthropy.

Skillern is one of four Salemites the Chamber is recognizing. Accountant and nonprofit board member Kathy Gordon, and Salem Rotary Foundation leader Barry Nelson will receive the Distinguished Service Award. Restaurant owner and commercial realtor Conrad Venti is being honored as this year’s Outstanding Young Professional.

Skillern, 65, joins a long list of distinguished Salem civic leaders, politicians and business people named First Citizen over the years, including the late state Senator Jackie Winters, retired former Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Hon. Paul De Muniz, and philanthropists Gary Epping and Shawn Epping Engelberg.

He is retiring this year after a career spent helping local churches, faith communities and faith leaders engage with their neighborhoods and local schools to meet community needs.

“This is a team effort and a team award and I’m honored that I get to be the one to stand up and say thanks,” Skillern said in an interview.

The foundation he leads has helped organizations including Salem for Refugees and Church at the Park get off the ground, and also inspired smaller projects, like an ongoing connection between Grant Elementary School and neighboring Salem Alliance Church to have church members serve as volunteers in the school.

He received 48 individual nominations for the award, said Dan Johnson, the Chamber’s director of marketing. It’s one of the higher totals Johnson can recall seeing.

Nominators included multiple former First Citizens, business leaders, pastors and nonprofits who have worked directly with Skillern, with many citing his role as a networker and cheerleader to help bring ideas to life in Salem.

News of the award came over Skillern’s Friday breakfast at the Sassy Onion, where he’s eaten with friends weekly for almost 20 years. He was eating when a posse showed up with a boom mic and camera to tell him he’d won and record his reaction.

“I had no idea. It was a beautifully orchestrated caper with multiple co-conspirators,” he said. “At first I was speechless, which is unusual for me.”

Skillern said it’s gratifying to know that the work he’s done has had an impact in Salem as he heads toward retirement. 

His unofficial motto, which ends his outgoing voicemail message, urges Salemites to “do something good for your neighborhood today.”

“It’s been very gratifying to see that people of faith and people of goodwill in Salem-Keizer can know each other and work together for the shalom of our city, for the health and wellbeing of our city,” he said.The First Citizen Awards Banquet is Saturday, April 13, at the Salem Convention Center. A social hour begins at 6 p.m. and the show starts at 7 p.m. Tickets are available on the Chamber website.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.