There was only one question lingering on the lips of hundreds of guests who gathered at Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara last Thursday evening: Who will be named the recipients of the prestigious 69th Annual Man & Woman of the Year Awards?

By sunset, conversation was swarming with bouts of speculation, playful wagers and abundant curiosity at a black-tie event in the La Pacifica Ballroom at The Biltmore near the stunning seaside.

Paula Lopez, KEYT-TV evening anchor, started the festivities and welcomed guests with background on the history and principles behind the coveted awards.

“We are here to take part in a long tradition nearly seven decades old by celebrating and acknowledging those who work tirelessly and selflessly on behalf of our community,” Lopez said. “Not just to make it a beautiful city aesthetically, but to make it a beautiful community in every other way possible — a community that reaches out and helps others.”

“People who have reached out with innovations and ideas to make good things happen and some of them are in this room tonight,” Lopez said as she acknowledged former award recipients, including Larry Crandell, Michael Towbes, Jean Schuyler and Joanne Rapp.

Next, Ron Gallo, president and CEO of the Santa Barbara Foundation, spoke on behalf of the organization.

“The Santa Barbara Foundation is honored to be the steward of this tradition,” Gallo said. “For this is not our event; it belongs to everyone in this room and every resident of Santa Barbara who understands that what makes this place beautiful and vibrant is our connectivity, and never has this connectivity been more necessary.”

Gallo also noted that despite a beautiful and pristine setting, the city has a high rate of poverty, violence in neighborhoods and illiteracy rates in schools that are coupled with struggles to maintain health, jobs and housing.

“So why aren’t I pessimistic despite these enormous challenges?” Gallo said. “Because what I still see in abundance in American people, and especially in Santa Barbara, is that special and powerful connectivity that comes from community outreach.”

Later, the earlier closely guarded secret was revealed as the Santa Barbara Foundation and KEYT announced the 2010 Man & Woman of the Year recipients as Clifford Sponsel and Gerd Jordano.

Sponsel and Jodano were each selected from a diverse pool of candidates for unwavering dedication and long-standing commitment to volunteerism in the community.

Colette Hadley, executive director of the Scholarship Foundation of Santa Barbara, presented the Man of the Year Award to Sponsel, a philanthropist who at 101 years old is the oldest recipient to be honored with this distinguished title.

Sponsel thanked a crowd of onlookers who gathered around his table and his wife, Juliette, said her husband winning the award was a surprise and an honor.

“Cliff is a generous man with a high IQ, but I think what makes him special is that he is a humble man and so with humble eyes you can see more,” she said. “And if you are egotistical, you can only see yourself.”

Sponsel’s philanthropic devotion has endured for more than 50 years with business leadership and financial advice that has served many organizations and enabled the completion of the Visiting Nurse & Hospice Care Administration Building and Serenity House, both named in his honor. Among many other community contributions, Sponsel is a founding member of Concours d’Elegance to raise funds for student scholarships and the inventor of the modern-day thermostat, which he gave to General Motors with no compensation for himself — further emphasizing his giving spirit.

Former award recipient Dr. Peter MacDougall presented the Woman of the Year Award to Jordano, who received a standing ovation and numerous hugs from guests as she made her way to the podium.

“It’s such an enormous honor from a community that I love so much because all the events I have volunteered for over the years have been a labor of love and the rewards are huge,” Jordano said. “The friendships that are formed open doors that would have never happened if I had not volunteered, and so the hours and time for all these jobs is not work, it’s passion.”

Jordano has provided service to many Santa Barbara community causes for more than 25 years as an active volunteer with Cottage Health System and Westmont College and as a board member with Hospice of Santa Barbara, the Scholarship Foundation of Santa Barbara and CALM. She is also a founding member for a grassroots organization dedicated to monitoring growth, Citizens for a Balanced Community, and has provided volunteer leadership and received honors from many other community organizations.

“The ultimate expression of generosity is not in giving of what you have but in giving in who you are,” Lopez said. “That is the quote you’ll find on the Santa Barbara Foundation website, and it speaks volumes as to who they are and why we are here tonight.”

The 69th Annual Man & Woman of the Year event was sponsored by the Santa Barbara Foundation and KEYT with support from KDB 93.7FM.

Noozhawk iSociety columnist Melissa Walker can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkSociety, @NoozhawkNews, and @NoozhawkBiz. Become a fan of Noozhawk on Facebook.

Noozhawk iSociety columnist Melissa Walker can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.