The man who won the TDCs top hospitality award remembers when there were more cows on the beach than tourists.

An emotional Malcolm Patterson accepted the Van Ness Butler, Jr., Hospitality Award Tuesday at the Walton County Tourist Development Council's 27th annual meeting.

The award was established in 2003 by the TDC to honor the legacy and service to the community exemplified by Van Ness Butler, Jr., whose family acquired land here in 1922.

"Their family defined Grayton Beach," said the TDC's Director of Marketing and Communications Jon Ervin.

Butler also served as the first chair of the TDC and as interim director for two years. He continued to serve on various committees for many years.

Ervin introduced Patterson and his accomplishments by saying Patterson accepted the position of the Walton County TDC's first executive director in 1988 and grew the county's bed tax revenue from $150,000 to $2 million. He also was a champion for establishing public beach accesses and beach cleaning. He negotiated a lease with the state for two acres on which to build the current information center, created a website, promoted the arts festival that is now known as ArtsQuest, helped establish the Northwest Florida Tourism Council, and doubled awareness of this area as a destination and put Northwest Florida on the map.

When Patterson took the podium he described a South Walton that few remember or know existed. His family owned cattle that roamed freely about, even on the beach. He rode a horse to round up the cattle, and remembers riding on the beach from Destin all the way to Inlet Beach when the only contrast between the white sand was cow patties.

"I may be the luckiest man in the world," said Patterson.

He recalled seeing a small ad in the newspaper right after he sold a boat business in Destin that said South Walton was looking for a director of tourism. Patterson called his old friend Butler and asked him if this was anything he (Patterson) might be interested in. Butler encouraged him to apply.

Patterson told him he didn't know anything about promoting tourism, but Butler told him, "We will teach you."

At this point, Patterson had to pause as he fought back tears.

"I told my wife, I think I'm gonna do this," he said. "After all, when you're at the bottom, where else can you go but up? As a young man I couldn't wait to get out of this place of rattlesnakes and cow dung, and then I spent 20 years trying to get back."

Patterson then flashed forward to recent years when the Okaloosa County TDC was rocked by a fraud scandal involving its previous director.

He said such a thing could not have happened in Walton County.

"We handled no money. We had to go to the county to get checks written," he said. "The people I worked with had such great vision of where we were going and what it was to be. I had a staff that was second to none. It was impossible to fail. Today, you have a wonderful opportunity to do things for yourself and this county that are unique. I am truly humbled to have been a part."

TDC executive director Jim Bagby said Patterson was selected to receive the award by a vote of the council.

"It was a vote celebrating his lifelong commitment to Walton County and he is most deserving," said Bagby.

This was Bagby's first TDC Annual Meeting over which to preside and he chose to do things a little differently than they had been done in the past.

This was the first annual meeting to be held outdoors, and at sunset, overlooking the Gulf.

"Successful organizations live their brand and this is our brand," said Bagby.

There were no slides heralding the TDC's accomplishments or booths manned by those with whom the TDC advertises, but Bagby said the TDC is moving forward, not backward.

"We hosted 3 million people this year resulting in a direct impact of $1 billion for our county. Walton County ranks 47th in population in the state, but is in the top 10 in visitor spending. We boast of six restaurants that are recipients of the Golden Spoon award. And thanks to nourished beaches, our brand is safe for another 50 years," said Bagby, not even mentioning that the county was set to haul in a record bed tax of $2.04 million in August, an increase of 27.3 percent from August 2012s $1.6 million.

To see a graphic charting the TDC's recent successes, click here.

Speaking of the changes he brought, Bagby told the Sun later that he attended the annual luncheons in the past and noticed when slides came on heralding the numbers, he watched the people at the tables become disengaged.

"I wanted to bring everyone together to celebrate our success, and recognize past winners and their success," he said. "In the past, we have focused on the TDC and staff and what they had done, but I wanted to focus on tourism. I didn't want a luncheon where people sit down with folks they know. It's about the beach, the sun and the water which is our product.

Bagby said he plans to continue having the event outdoors, and there will be no slides.  

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And the artist of the year is

TDC chief Jim Bagby said what defines South Walton is its eclectic style seen in so many various artist's works. This year for the first time, winning artists were recognized in their respective genres, with one overall Artist of the Year then named.

Named Performer of the Year was Mike Witty.

Photographer of the Year is Chandler Williams.

Painter of the Year is Juan Adaro.

Designer of the Year is Stephanie Carter.

And, overall Artist of the Year recipient is glass artist Mary Hong.

During the ceremony, past award recipients were recognized and this year's winners received a champagne toast for their accomplishments. The band Old Bull Young Bull performed.

"This is about celebrating our destination, our people, the people we follow, and the beauty that is Walton County," said Bagby in closing, as all raised a toast.