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April 2, 2009

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Hill activist named ‘Favorite Straight Person of the Year’

John and Ruth, a lifelong Chestnut Hill resident, are both big-time award winners. John was recently named “Straight Person of the Year” by The AIDS Fund, and Ruth was named “Hearing Person of the Year” last November by the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf for her 25 years of exemplary service to this institution. (Photo by Erin Vertreace)

I was kind of amazed,” commented Chestnut Hill resident John Cella. “I’m in some pretty high company.”

Indeed. Past winners of “Favorite Straight Person of the Year” award, which will be presented at the 10th annual Black-Tie Gay Bingo on Friday, April 3, 6:30 p.m., include former Philadelphia mayor, John Street, and former mayor and current Pennsylvania governor, Ed Rendell. And the venue? Not shabby either: the elegant Crystal Tea Room, inside the Wanamaker Building on Penn Square  in center city.

John, 58, a Drexel Hill native, will be retiring in May, ending 17 years of service to the AIDS Activities Coordinating Office of Public Health (AACO). Those who worked closely with him throughout this time surely sought out a way to honor his hard work, support and dedication in aiding those 30,000 people living in the Philadelphia area with this devastating disease. Since 2004, Cella has served as director of AACO. He oversees $46 million in federal, state and local funding for HIV/AIDS care and prevention services as well as HIV/AIDS surveillance activities.

“We wanted to make sure he stepped down with the appreciation of the entire community for his longtime commitment to HIV/AIDS issues in our city,” said AIDS Fund executive director, Robb Reichard.

On the night of April 3, the Crystal Tea Room will absorb a much different atmosphere than the standard ceremonies that parade through this space. For one, the night’s hostesses, the Bingo Verifying Divas, will be zipping around on in-line skates, dressed in drag and holding platters of finger foods. The run-down for the evening looks like this: dinner, six bingo games, silent auction and ultimately, dancing. Cella forsees giving a short speech as he accepts his award. The other marquee award of the night, Ferrara Family Volunteers of the Year Award, will be presented to Trish Houck and her children, Leah and Eric. (In addition to the monthly Gay Bingos where Trish and her children have been loyal volunteers, they arrive before daybreak on the days of AIDS Walk Philly to lend a hand in setting up for AIDS Fund’s biggest event. Trish is a programmer analyst in the city’s Department of Behavioral Health and Mental Retardation Services, and lives in Bridesburg.)

Tickets are on sale for $150. Proceeds from the evening will be used to care for AIDS afflicted citizens of our area through the AIDS Fund, which also hosts the AIDS Walk Philly, which will take place on Sunday, Oct. 18.

For more information on Black-Tie Gay Bingo, call 215-731-9255 and check out monthly creatively-themed bingo nights at the Gershman YMCA, Broad and Pine Streets. They convene one Saturday night a month, 7 p.m., and dish out prizes ranging from $100 to $1000. April 11 is titled “Totally ‘80s night”; May 16 is “Divalicious”; on June 20, turn back the clock even further for a “Grease”-themed summer outing. Reserved tickets are $20 per night, and balcony seating goes for $15. To date, these “campy humor” Saturday nights have raised $2.1 million for the cause.

When asked how he would fill his time after May and beyond, Cella sounded content with no definite plans. “I will look for a part-time opportunity, and I still want to work in a field that interests me,” he said. “Also, I am looking forward to spending more time jazz-singing, a long time passion, playing the piano and traveling.” If you walk along or near Germantown Avenue in Chestnut Hill, you may have seen John and his wife, Ruth, 56, walking their two Jack Russell Terriers. It is a daily ritual for them, and they “love the trails of the Wissahickon.

“Walking in Chestnut Hill is great,” added Ruth. “There is always something new to look at. And we love the diversity of it.” The Cellas also frequently dine on the Avenue. “We just tried Soul and really liked it. Solaris is an old favorite.”

Ruth, a lifelong Chestnut Hill resident, was named “Hearing Person of the Year” last November by the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf for her 25 years of exemplary service to this institution. The mantle above the fireplace in the Cella household must be getting full from all the prestigious hardware accumulated these past few months. The couple’s son, David, was a Chestnut Hill Academy lifer, has an undergraduate diploma from Harvard University, and is currently wrapping up his first year at Harvard Law School.

“We both feel really honored,” John insisted, “I mean we are both kind of outsiders to our respective groups, and they are both just such welcoming groups to be a part of.”

 

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