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The Group Travel Leader Small Market Meetings Going on Faith

Cheryl Thorne’s finding new vistas for all ages

Cheryl Thorne loves to network with Bank Travel colleagues, so if her name sounds familiar, she may have picked your brain at the annual conference.

Or, if you were in Mount Sterling, Kentucky, decades ago, you might recognize her name as the one that flashed on the marquee at the Ramada Inn, where she starred on the stage playing the gutbucket.

Yes, this esteemed director of the First State Bank Vista Club at the First State Bank in Mendota, Illinois, found more than 15 minutes of fame strumming a string instrument made from a washtub, a broomstick and a resin cord.

“It was a talent that came back to haunt me,” said Thorne with a laugh. “Not long ago, when I had my group at a lobster boil in New England, the bandleader brought out a gutbucket and insisted that I entertain. Now, where would a bandleader in New England find a gutbucket on the spur of the moment? Who knows?

“God, who obviously has a great sense of humor, works in mysterious ways.”

Zip lining, castle haunts, rock ’n’ roll
Seven years ago, after a long career at First State Bank in a variety of structured positions, Thorne jumped at the chance to lead the Vista Club. “The thought of riding on a motorcoach seeing new sights and telling jokes all day — well, who would turn that down? Of course, I was oblivious to all the work it takes to do this job,” she said.

“But even today, I still feel fortunate to be riding on a motorcoach, seeing new sights and telling jokes all day.”

Thorne refers to her work as “going on vacation” on the variety of excursions that the Vista Club, with 1,800 members, takes each year. Although most trips appeal to everyone, some are designed for true adventure-seekers, and others attract those members who may not want to have hair-raising photographs in their scrapbooks.

“I’m devoted to erasing the stigma of group travel. From day trips to four- and five-day tours to extended international trips, I want to offer travel for every age group and every level of physical activity,” said Thorne. “While we do have an age requirement of 50, we encourage members to bring a guest of any age.”

Thorne recently escorted 77 fun-lovers of many ages to Alaska, where thoughtful planning offered both relaxation and memorable escapades. “For this 12-day excursion, I planned the land part first, when everyone is operating at 200 watts. The cruise part is much more relaxing, and we planned that the flight home was shorter than the arriving flight,” she said.

Those high-voltage land tours included crab fishing on the Aleutian Ballad, one of the fishing vessels first featured on the Discovery Channel’s reality show “Deadliest Catch.”

“Fans of the show might remember that the Aleutian Ballad capsized off of Dutch Harbor, and the crew was rescued. Eventually, they salvaged the vessel, rebuilt it and used it as an excursion vessel. While we stayed in relatively calm waters on the Bering Sea, the crew — Captain Dave, Kiwi and Chief — are the same guys we see on the show,” said Thorne.

At Thorne’s insistence, her husband, Jerry, accompanied her on a zip-lining adventure in Ketchikan, an adventure that took them 200 feet above a rain forest by way of 6,000 feet of steel cable. “When we reached the treetop platform, strapped in harnesses with hardhats and leather gloves, my inclination was to grab the tree and never let go,” admitted Thorne.

“But then, I heard a voice I recognized saying, ‘I’ll go first.’ I knew it was Jerry, and I knew if he went first, I had to follow and not back out of the whole thing. In the end, the experience was exhilarating, including having to propel 75 feet off a tree at the end.”

Another of Thorne’s favorite destinations is Ireland, where she extended her stay for five days because of a sick club member. “I continued on at the Clontarf Castle in Dublin, where the staff never charged me for the dinners I enjoyed during those extra days. If I were to pick another place to live, it would be Ireland. Besides the history and scenery, the people are so accommodating, and they love Americans,” she said.

Vista’s female members also enjoy an annual Girls’ Day Out, an event that has recently taken busloads of swooning women to see “Million Dollar Quartet” at the Apollo Theater in Chicago. Thorne described the Tony Award-nominated show that showcases Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis as the best. “Our girls were yelling and screaming; we all felt like kids again.”

Family ties
Besides receiving the first Mendota Gold Star Employee award for outstanding service as a result of customers’ votes, Thorne has also been voted Mendota’s Mother of the Year.

“I’m lucky that today, even with great-grandchildren, my family all live within 35 miles,” she said.
Her 85-year-old parents are also nearby, and one of her fondest stories is about a phone message she received at work from her father. “In his beautiful voice, he sang the song ‘I Just Called to Say I Love You.’ I replay that message every time I’m having a bad day, and remember that the most important thing in life is to be loved and love others.”

Thorne gives tribute to her mother when it comes to her love of cooking. “I come from the Eloise Barrett Cooking School — my mother, of course. We grew up on a farm and sometimes didn’t have all the ingredients for dinner, and she simply used what was on hand. It always worked for her, but sometimes when I follow her lead, I can see on my family’s faces after their first bite if I should make that dish again or not.”

Thorne is currently musing over the idea of retirement but keeps extending the date, thanks to her reluctance to leave her “1,800-member family with Vista.”

“I reflect on my years here and know that the reason our group has been so successful is not so much that I’m a good leader but that the group members are like a family. Most importantly, upper management is incredibly supportive.

“I’ve told our members to come up with a destination for 2012 that might be our last trip together,” she sighed.

But after some thought, Thorne added, “They better make it a trip that will accommodate 1,800 people.”

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