Geologic park manager receives NYS Hometown Alumni Award
By Joe Wilensky
Jonathan Weston ’04, manager of Panama Rocks, a park and geologic site in New York’s Chautauqua County, received the Cornell New York State Hometown Alumni Award Oct. 6 in a virtual ceremony.
Weston, a College of Arts and Sciences graduate who majored in government, manages the privately-run scenic park and site, which also is his family’s business.
Located in Panama, New York, in the westernmost corner of the state, Panama Rocks is TripAdvisor’s No. 1-ranked attraction in Chautauqua County and sightseeing- and itinerary-planning site Inspirock’s No. 1-ranked trail in New York state.
Launched in 2018, the Cornell New York State Hometown Alumni Award recognizes Cornell graduates who return to their home counties or regions and are engaged in significant positions of leadership with and for their communities.
Weston was scheduled to receive the award at an in-person event in March 2020 before it was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic and the award program was paused.
“We are thrilled to relaunch this initiative today, [and] while we would have liked to be able to gather together in person, we are pleased that we’re able to do it virtually,” said Joel Malina, vice president for university relations.
“This is a terrific opportunity for us to recognize Jonathan’s contributions to his community and his commitment to his particular area of New York state,” Malina said, thanking Weston for his patience, service and collegiality “while continuing in the interim to work hard for his home county.”
Malina noted that Weston spent most of his childhood at Panama Rocks, which features caves and crevices, towering rocks and intertwined roots along and between forest trails. He also developed his strong work ethic by watching his parents run the business of the park and learned from them the importance of giving back, Malina said.
“The award is great, but the real reward I received from Cornell is my education, and the memories and friendships I made during my time there,” Weston said, describing his Cornell experience as “one of the most challenging, rewarding times of my life. ... I have absolutely no doubt, I would not be where I am now, both personally and professionally, without the knowledge I gained there and the friends that I made while at college.”
After graduating from Cornell, Weston worked as a senior policy adviser for Rep. Brian Higgins (D-New York, 26th Dist.) and as a Congressional liaison and communications director for the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.
He continued his education at the United States Air Force Air Command and Staff College and at Johns Hopkins University before moving back to his hometown in 2014.
In his community, he has served on the board of the Roger Tory Peterson Institute for Natural History, as village trustee in Panama, and is currently chair of the board of directors of the Chautauqua County Visitors Bureau, on which he has served for eight years. At Panama Rocks, Weston has hosted fundraising events for local nonprofits, including CASA of Chautauqua County, which helps local children in the foster care system.
Andrew Nixon, president and CEO of the Chautauqua County Visitors Bureau, spoke during the online ceremony and said that Weston’s accomplishments at Panama Rocks “indicate innovation added to authenticity, which is important in how we how we present our area to the public.”
“He’s frequently challenged conventional thinking and he’s helped the [visitors bureau] to always remember to make our decisions based on data,” Nixon said. “Jonathan is a constant sharer and networker, often helping others to connect the dots in an effort to improve outcomes.”
The award highlights Weston’s “world-class commitment to all things community, through his oversight of a beloved family business, service in local government, and his hands-on support of area nonprofits,” Malina said. Weston’s career “has always been underlined by a solid commitment to his friends and neighbors, and their needs and interests.”
Malina virtually presented Weston with the award plaque, which states that Weston was being honored “with appreciation for utilizing your Cornell education for the betterment of Chautauqua County, New York state and the common good.”
Weston thanked his colleagues at the visitors bureau and the Roger Tory Peterson Institute, along with his wife, Holly, and daughter, Lilia. They “are my life and my motivation to get up each day and to not give up, even when things seem dark and depressing,” he said. “I am grateful to you all. And with your support, I hope to continue to be involved in our community for years to come.”
As part of the award, Cornell is donating $1,000 in Weston’s name to 5&2 Ministry, his nonprofit of choice, which addresses childhood hunger in Chautauqua County by providing weekend food packages to elementary school children in need.
“Since the inception of this award program, we’ve come to really cherish what we’re seeing of these alumni who are using their education to help their communities,” Malina said. “It’s really a representation of so much of Cornell’s heritage of public engagement.”