Meryl Streep, Morgan Freeman, Glenn Close, Bob Dole, Colin L. Powell, Toni Morrison, Ken Burns, Larry King, and Christopher Reeve make only a small sampling of the 150 leaders and achievers acknowledged annually by The Common Wealth Awards.
This year’s event marked the 30th anniversary of the awards for distinguished service and exceptional accomplishments. The honorees were Kevin Spacey for dramatic arts, Doris Kearns Goodwin for mass communications, Don DeLillo for literature and Buzz Aldrin for science. They received their awards and a cash prize during a four-part event hosted by PNC Bank Delaware at the Hotel du Pont.
During a press conference moderated by WHYY’s Nancy Karabjanian —ever the consummate media professional—your Gabby had direct, if brief, access to the recipients. “Why Mars?” we asked Aldrin, a staunch advocate of exploring the planet. “To put America back in the premiere world position in science and technology,” the former astronaut replied. “What about those occasional accusations of plagiarism?” we asked presidential historian Goodwin. “How could or should a public figure handle them?” she said. Goodwin’s very own husband called U.S. Senator Joe Biden when he was accused during the 1988 presidential campaign. “Things worked out pretty well, after all,” Ms. Goodwin pointed out.
Press conference concluded, cocktails commencing, the room emptied. The honorees graciously greeted each and every one of the 350 tuxedoed, gowned and, in one instance, kimonoed guests. Nice.
Inside the Gold Ballroom—standing room only—we elbowed our way to Governor Jack Markell and his wife, Carla. The guv was eager to hear Aldrin’s views on government spending on earth and in space. Expenditures in both areas were good, Governor Markell said, “as long as revenues are not wasted or defrauded.” He pointed the benefit of technology that resulted from the space program. “The choice starts with education in our schools,” he said. Mrs. Markell switched the convo from politics to pop culture, explaining that she and the governor had been studying up on their Spacey earlier in the day by watching “American Beauty,” one of her favorite movies.
Wilmington City Councilman Charles Potter Jr. and his wife, new State Treasurer Velda Jones-Potter, wearing satin in coordinated tones of chocolate and champagne, were also self-confessed Spacey fans. Charles on Spacey: “He owns it.” Velda: “Love his movies.” Which ones? “All of them.”
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Claire DeMatteis, whose smile is brighter than any of her exquisite sequined gowns, was excited to see Aldrin again. They’d met recently during a nighttime shuttle launch in Florida. Buzz told her it was “the most beautiful he’d seen”—and he’s seen quite a few. Claire was also keen to learn the topic of Goodwin’s follow up to her best-seller “Team of Rivals.”
Strike up the band. The Delaware Military Academy cadet color guard led the procession of stars into the ballroom, where Academy junior Nadjah Pennington sang “The Star Spangled Banner” before dinner. The doors closed. After a very five-star (so we heard) Hotel D meal, attendees made the short walk to the DuPont Theatre, where they were greeted by The Strolling Strings, who performed selections from Broadway musicals. “Camelot” seemed timely.
Seats filled. Lights dimmed. PNC president Connie Bond Stuart welcomed all before the honorees accepted their awards and made brief speeches balanced with poignancy and humor.
Aldrin, wearing his Presidential Medal of Freedom, mentioned his mother, Marion, a notebook he keeps of the interesting places and people he’s met, his 30 years of sobriety, and his desire for permanent settlement of Mars.
DeLillo, brow furrowed in the most sartorial fashion, recounted his recent finding of a rejected manuscript for his first book, “American,” which was full of misspellings and wrapped in brown paper. ”It was like sending 11 pounds of ground meat to the publisher,” he said. (We know better.) He likened the evening, many years and many successes later, to a painting he owns of “a pair of eyes in space viewing from a certain distance.” The work represented how he felt, “bearing witness to a lucky life.”
Ms. Goodwin, in a sparkling two-piece suit of silver and aqua, thanked her father for listening to her recount every play of a Brooklyn Dodgers game they’d attended when she was a girl, thus nurturing her early story-telling skills. She also recalled when President Lyndon Johnson asked her to “discuss our relationship” over a picnic. Hmmm. Goodwin thought he was wooing her until he said, “You remind me of my mother.”
Mr. Spacey was the finale, and he had the crowd in his hands. “Earlier tonight we shook hands with everyone in this room,” he told them, “including those who left.”
He alluded to Governor Markell’s welcome at dinner. When Markell told the honorees, “The four of you have gone places others have not,” Spacey thought Governor Markell meant that fabulous place must have been the First State because so many people in the receiving line remarked to him, “We can’t believe you’re in Delaware.” Lucky us.
Spacey reminded the audience that arts and culture are “not luxury items” but “necessities,” citing their economic impact—an especially important remark given the city of Wilmington’s efforts to woo new arts audiences downtown. He wrapped up by recalling when Jack Lemmon spoke to him about success and the importance of “sending the elevator back down” once it had been achieved. The anecdote served as the perfect segue to Spacey’s introduction of the Common Wealth Award student writing competition winner, Ms. Elizabeth Richards.
Mr. Spacey left us with one more Kevinism: “If the Common Wealth Awards honor people from eight areas, and there are only four of us here, did four people do nothing exceptional in their fields? I hope that changes next year.” We’ll let you know, Kev. Ciao for now.