Good news is great, but it’s even better when it arrives ahead of schedule.

And a five-figure award from a national competition? That has little shortage of appeal, too.

On Tuesday around noon, Diana Christopulos got both: early glad tidings in the form of a sudden, oversized check for $60,000.

That was the prize for being named the 2019 National Cox Conserves Hero, an annual award presented by Cox Enterprises and the Trust for Public Land.

Christopulos, 71, is president of the Blue Ridge Land Conservancy and the Roanoke Valley Cool Cities Coalition and a former president and current vice president of the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club. She’s an outspoken environmental watchdog, most recently with regard to the Mountain Valley Pipeline, and a vocal advocate for conservation who has campaigned for reductions in the carbon footprints of local governments.

Winning the competition on a state level had already garnered her $10,000, but in order to take the top prize she had to vie for online votes against the finalists from eight other states. After a two-week voting period earlier this month, Christopulos wound up with more votes than any other nominee, including competitors from far more populated states, including California and Florida, which brought her an additional $50,000.

Those results were due to be announced at 3 p.m. Tuesday, but her victory was sprung on her ahead of schedule, at a surprise lunchtime event at Mill Mountain Coffee and Tea in Salem.

Christopulos, having coffee with a colleague, literally stepped away from the counter — a mug in one hand, a pitcher of cream in the other — and found herself surrounded by friends, colleagues and Cox representatives, or roughly one-third of the patrons in the busy eatery.

“How did I not notice all these people?” she asked, smiling, as cellphone cameras clicked.

“Diana is a dedicated advocate for the environmental community of [the] Roanoke Valley in Virginia,” a Cox news release announced. “She’s a leading voice to reduce the region’s carbon footprint, save public and private open spaces and minimize the adverse environmental impact of development projects.”

Winners of the award direct the money to the nonprofit of their choice, which, in Christopulos’ case, is the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

“I’m limiting it to the protection of large landscapes along the Appalachian Trail in Virginia,” she said Tuesday. “We can’t acquire any big pieces of land … but we can leverage that money to do big things.”

Christopulos has said she chose the conservancy, in part, because the trail’s national profile might translate to more votes. But former Roanoke city councilman Rupert Cutler, who nominated her for the competition back in the spring, said he felt she had a local advantage as well.

“I attribute it to Diana’s wide range of friendship here in Western Virginia,” Cutler said. “They were encouraged to vote for her and obviously they did.”

David Perry, executive director of the Blue Ridge Land Conservancy, which partners with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, had been tasked with luring Christopulos out Tuesday without tipping her off.

“There’s no one more deserving of this than Diana. She does so much, I don’t think she sleeps,” Perry said.

“Behind her are thousands of people who contribute in ways that go unnoticed. I know Diana would like this award to stand for them, too.”

Representatives for Cox Enterprises, the parent company of cable and internet provider Cox Communications, said they were not releasing the overall or individual number of votes cast this year, but they said the total represented an increase of 50% from last year’s ballots.

Cox and the Trust for Public Land have awarded the grants annually for the past 11 years to conservation advocates in nine states: Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Virginia and Washington. This year’s awards should push their total contributions to more than $1 million.

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