Al Smith Dinner, Back in Person, Marks Milestone in Style


Condoleezza Rice, former U.S. Secretary of State, said the celebration of the 76th annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner was “a testament to the resilience of Americans, particularly New Yorkers, in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic.”

“Last year, you met virtually for the 75th time, but this year we can celebrate in person. And that way we get to celebrate this milestone, the diamond anniversary, in a proper fashion.”

Ms. Rice, who served as the 66th secretary of state from 2005 to 2009, said she was honored to serve as keynote speaker of the Smith dinner, held Oct. 21 at the Javits Center Expansion in Manhattan. She wished the foundation “many, many, many more years of providing hope.”

Presided over by the Archbishop of New York, chair of the Smith Memorial Foundation, Cardinal Dolan offered the invocation, opening remarks and benediction.

The gathering is dedicated to the memory of Alfred E. Smith, a four-term governor of New York who in 1928 became the first Catholic to be nominated by a major political party as the Democratic candidate for president of the United States.

Frank A. Bennack Jr., executive vice chairman and former CEO of Hearst, was the recipient of the Happy Warrior Award, conferred by Mary Callahan Erdoes, vice chair of the Smith Memorial Foundation and CEO of J.P. Morgan Asset & Wealth Management.

“Happy Warrior” was an affectionate nickname of Smith. Each recipient of the foundation’s highest honor has a record of generosity to the poor, service to the city and support of the charitable initiatives of the archdiocese.

Other dignitaries on the dais included New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea and Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York; Archbishop Gabriele Caccia, permanent observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, and Brooklyn Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio.

Former President George W. Bush, a past keynote speaker of the dinner, delivered recorded video remarks. Ms. Rice was secretary of state in his administration.

During her keynote address, Ms. Rice, who is Presbyterian, shared that she was a product of Catholic schools, and showed a photo of her wearing her Catholic school uniform. Educated by the Sisters of Loretto at St. Mary’s Academy in Denver, “that time shaped me,” she said, then quipped “but obviously not as a rules follower” explaining the photo illustrated that she “perfected the tried and true rite of passage in Catholic girls schools—rolling up your uniform skirt just high enough to be stylish but not too short to have the nuns expel you before graduation.”

She was also educated at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.

Ms. Rice, who serves as director of the Hoover Institution, acknowledged the 1928 presidential election in which Herbert Hoover defeated Al Smith.

That campaign, she said, must be remembered for something very serious, “the anti-Catholic tenor that it took on—not from Hoover himself, who proclaimed that Smith’s religion should have no bearing on his ability to be president.”

“Religious freedom,” Ms. Rice continued, “can never be taken for granted. But we have come a long way—to the election of John F. Kennedy and Joe Biden and the rejection of intolerance toward Mitt Romney in 2012.”

This is a reminder, she added, that change is a constant in America. “In fits and starts, we keep trying to forge a more perfect union.”

Journalist Maria Bartiromo served as the mistress of ceremonies.

The cardinal, in his remarks, asked those assembled to remember the lives of all those lost to Covid-19.

The cardinal’s invocation also acknowledged those who although were not physically present “are the very reason for our coming together—namely, the unending litany of those struggling, the ill, the newly arrived, our elders, our children and the poor, who benefit from the generosity of those here.”

A special In Memoriam tribute honored the late Alfred E. Smith IV, great-grandson of Smith, who served on the foundation’s board of directors and was a longtime master of ceremonies at the dinner. He died in November 2019. 

Also acknowledged was a past keynote speaker of the Al Smith Dinner, Gen. Colin Powell, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, secretary of state and national security adviser for the United States, who died three days earlier.

“Might this evening of fun and patriotism and unity inspire our prayer that we remain one nation under you, and that you, God, will continue to bless America,” said the cardinal in concluding the invocation.

The Al Smith Dinner exists to help the most vulnerable members of society: children and their families. This year’s dinner surpassed its goal, raising $7.4 million.


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