Iney Wallens interviewed many famous people on her decades-long radio program -- Jack Benny, Ethel Merman, Harry Belafonte, Liberace, to name a few -- but Friday, the 80-something talk show host was herself the talk of the town.
"I'm scared to death," Wallens said before being honored at a retirement luncheon. "The shoe's on the other foot today."
The person who began the Good Neighbor Award and handed out one every week on her WJJL-AM radio show was given one herself for her service to the Niagara community. The last Iney Wallens Show was taped Aug. 29, 2008, and the last award was handed out Friday by singer Dale Campbell of WJJL radio and her co-host for the past four years.
"It's only fitting that Iney receives the last Good Neighbor Award," Campbell said at the lunch at Chu's Chinese Restaurant on Main Street.
The award was the latest in a string she has received over the years, including the Distinguished Broadcasters Award from the Buffalo Broadcast Pioneers; the Hometown Hero Award from the Niagara Falls Convention and Visitors Bureau; and the Woman of the Year award from the American Women of Radio and Television.
The Rev. Barry Lillis, former Channel 2 weatherman who was born in Niagara Falls, has known Wallens for 40 years. When he first saw her, he asked someone, "Who is that drop-dead gorgeous girl?"
"Iney was gracious all the time," Lillis said. "We in broadcasting have a unique opportunity to help the community, to fix things -- broken hearts and broken homes."
Wallens was often being recognized for supporting community organizations, especially those for women.
Turning to Wallens, Lillis, a fellow member of the Buffalo Broadcasters Hall of Fame, said, "I admire you, not only for being an icon in broadcasting, but for fixing things. You fulfilled your noble obligations in life."
Wallens was praised by a host of friends and family, including close friends Eva Nicklas of the Lewiston Council on the Arts, Dr. Maria Crea of Niagara Falls, Lewiston actor and activist Tim Henderson and former City Councilwoman Candra Thomason.
Nicklas placed a silver tiara on Wallens' head and declared: "I crown you Queen of the Universe." Henderson sang a ditty he wrote about her being a living legend.
Niagara Falls Mayor Paul A. Dyster gave her the key to the city, proclaiming her as "the most beloved citizen in the City of Niagara Falls."
"Certain people are so legendary you don't even have to say their last names," Dyster said. "They are known as Hillary, Oprah, and Iney."
Her son, Todd, a Niagara Falls doctor, who was there with his son, Justin, an assistant district attorney in Buffalo, thanked his mother for "a lot of beautiful years."
"Growing up, I remember the parties in the house with all the theater people," he said. "My whole life has been beautiful because of my mother and my father."
His father, Phil, well known as an actor in local theater, died in 2007.
"We're lucky to have you," echoed her granddaughter, Rachel Dunn of Lewiston, who was there with three of Iney's four great-grandchildren.
"It looks like my whole life sitting here in front of me," Wallens told the audience. "I want to thank you all -- and I don't want to say anymore because I'll cry."
Wallens' age has been a time honored secret for many years. Even when pressed to divulge it, she said, "Age is a number and mine isn't listed."
Wallens said she owed her career to the late Edward "Eddie Joe" Joseph, longtime general manager of WHLD-AM radio. "The first time Eddie Joe saw Iney," said Jeannie Beales, who worked behind the scenes at WHLD, "he knew what potential she had, and he launched her career."
The famous people she had on her show were usually performing at Melody Fair theater in North Tonawanda at the time.
As a final tribute, Campbell, in trademark cowboy hat, strapped on his guitar and belted out "Save the Last Dance For Me" as people in the audience clapped and sang along.