When Jean Watt walked into the Bahia Corinthian Yacht Club around noon Friday, she thought she had simply been invited to lunch with two friends.
Instead, when Watt reached the bottom of the stairs leading toward the club's outdoor patio, about 20 people greeted her with applause. The longtime Newport beach environmentalist had been named, much to her surprise, the Newport Beach Citizen of the Year.
Watt, known for environmental stewardship, placed her hand over her chest and looked confusedly across the smiling faces of those gathered, including past award recipients.
"Congratulations," said Councilman Steve Rosansky, the newly appointed president and chief executive of the Newport Beach Chamber of Commerce, which sponsors the designation. "You're Citizen of the Year 2013."
Glasses of champagne were served, and Watt received personal accolades from those present.
Awardees of years past selected Watt, a former Newport Beach councilwoman, to receive the honor. When considering the recipient, they look for someone who has steadily contributed to the community over a significant period of time, said Robert Wynn, a past city manager and the 1978 recipient of the honor.
"It's a longevity of efforts, not a single effort," he said.
The award was not presented last year, when the chamber was undergoing administrative change, but about 12 people met earlier in August to choose from about nine candidates considered for this year's honor, Rosansky said.
In the 1970s, Watt helped launch an organization called Stop Polluting Our Newport, which served initially to advocate for improved water quality.
She also became involved in monitoring airport growth and city traffic, in addition to helping reinvigorate Newport Beach's Environmental Nature Center.
Watt, who moved to Newport Beach 60 years ago, recalled visiting the area in the 1930s with her family. She noted that seeing the bay change over the decades piqued her early interest in the environment.
"Some people would say she's a force for balanced growth," said Bob Shelton, past city manager and city councilman, who received the award in 1980.
"That would be the hoped-for term," Watt said, laughing.
In earlier years of the award, which was first given in 1949, the honoree didn't learn that he or she had been selected until the night of the Citizen of the Year celebratory gala.
Now, with smaller events like this year's surprise reception, the awardees have some advance notice.
Paul Salata, the creator of Mr. Irrelevant who received the award in 1990, looked on and said, "We haven't had a bad one yet."
This year's gala has been tentatively scheduled for mid-October, pending Watt's availability.