It’s not often I find myself in a beautiful Central Park West apartment with terrace views overlooking the trees and ball fields across the street. But there’s a first time for everything, and that is exactly where I was one afternoon last week.
The gathering that inspired my visit was a preview luncheon for the 74th annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner scheduled to take place Thursday, Oct. 17, at the New York Hilton Hotel Midtown. Gen. James Mattis, the former secretary of defense, will be the keynote speaker. Actor and comedian Martin Short will be the master of ceremonies.
The Smith dinner is a glittering affair, whose dais perennially includes leaders of the political, business and religious worlds. Good humor delivered in a convivial atmosphere, sometimes right in the midst of a presidential election season, makes the event a prized ticket.
Politics aside, the high stakes can be difficult to overlook, so much so that the real reason for the dinner, its support for charitable endeavors, can often appear to get short shrift.
The luncheon had a different tone. Board member Andy Unanue and his wife, Marie, graciously welcomed guests, including many local television journalists, along with several other Smith board members, into their home.
Unanue spoke about following in the philanthropic footsteps of his parents, and said he was grateful to serve the Smith Foundation because it reaches out “to the entire community.”
“This (gathering) is to get the word out about what the Alfred E. Smith Foundation really does.”
Cardinal Dolan gave journalists attending a good grounding in the Smith Foundation’s longstanding charitable support helping women and children, especially those who are poor or disadvantaged in some other way.
He thanked the assembled members of the media, not only for their professional work but also for their willingness to serve as emcees of various archdiocesan functions whether they are fund-raisers for Catholic Charities or Catholic schools.
“You’re very good to us,” the cardinal said. “You show up when we need you. We don’t take that for granted.”
Bettina Alonso, the director of development for the archdiocese, also serves as executive director of the Alfred E. Smith Foundation. She spoke about Alfred E. Smith, who was famously a four-term governor of New York and the first Catholic major party candidate for president as the Democratic nominee in 1928.
She cited Smith’s “pursuit of the common good and his concern for the most vulnerable among us,” and said the foundation named for him attempts to live up to his legacy.
This year’s dinner will focus on Smith’s legacy of empowerment of women. The Happy Warrior Award recipient, the first woman to be so honored, will be Mary Ann Tighe, CEO, New York Tri-State Region, of CBRE.
The luncheon’s high point were remarks made by Pat Tursi, CEO of Elizabeth Seton Pediatric Center in Yonkers, which has recently been rebranded as Elizabeth Seton Children’s Center.
She is a leader of an organization that serves children and young people to age 21 with multiple severe medical conditions, 75 percent of whom stay with Elizabeth Seton for their entire lives.
As Ms. Tursi explained in a video about organizations assisted by the Smith Foundation, the 169 young people living at the Seton Children’s Center “provide 169 inspirations to get the funding we need.”
She talked about the many times the Smith Foundation has come through for the Elizabeth Seton center. The one that struck me the most was when she requested a $1 million lead gift to launch the capital campaign to build the new campus in Yonkers. Her board said she would never be able to get that kind of gift, but she was not deterred.
“Alfred E. Smith stepped up and gave us the cornerstone gift that made our dream a reality,” recalled Ms. Tursi, who said a slew of other foundations soon followed the Smith Foundation’s lead.
By 2012, the 165,000-square-foot building opened. Ms. Tursi said she has never forgotten the reactions of parents when they saw their children’s rooms for the first time.
“They were in tears,” she said. “The smiles and joy were so overwhelming.”