- The Washington Times - Monday, May 22, 2000

The Duke Ellington School of the Arts' second benefit gala on Friday had it all and then some.

Nine outstanding Americans were honored for their achievements in the fields of arts, public policy and philanthropy in the Ronald Reagan International Building and Trade Center, and nearly all the presenters were as distinguished as the honorees.

Dinner tables were decorated with painted masks. Shadowy musical notes were projected onto the ceiling above an atrium transformed into a gigantic musical stage set that had choirs, dancers and instrumentalists performing on behalf of the District of Columbia's only public high school devoted to the arts.

"One of Duke's show-biz contemporaries Mae West said 'too much of a good thing can be wonderful,'" noted honoree Franklin Raines, Fannie Mae chairman and chief executive officer, aptly enough when his turn came to accept the sculpture award from Elliott Hall, vice president of the Ford Motor Co.

The audience by then had been surfeited with enough wonder to fill an auditorium for a week and they were only halfway through the program that began with a slick rendition in song and dance by school students, faculty and alumni of some of the composer's best-known melodies. Then actor Avery Brooks and Mercedes Ellington, granddaughter of Washington's most famous native musician, greeted well-wishers. These included Mayor Anthony A. Williams and his wife, Diane, seated at the table of school founder Peggy Cooper Cafritz, in wheelchair and cast after having recently broken her foot bungee jumping off a bridge in Bermuda.

Even French Ambassador Francois Bujon de l'Estang got into the act, delivering a toast as one of the school's neighbors and a longtime lover of jazz. Mr. Brooks seconded him, saying, "Everything we do tonight is for our children." The event raises much-needed money to keep the school alive for the coming year.

Legendary dancer Katherine Dunham, 90, recipient of a Lifetime Achievement in Dance award, was introduced in a sentimental moment by one of her former dancers, Julie Belafonte (wife of singer Harry Belafonte).

Miss Dunham silenced the crowd holding a hand mike at her table to say, in part, that "Time doesn't matter. What matters is that you achieve … and it will happen if you stay with it. What counts is what you feel about yourself, and the only way to find that out is to get out there and do it and find within yourself the love of God."

Connections were a subtheme of the evening that drew an eclectic mix of people, including John Hechinger, saying proudly that he graduated from Western High School before it was converted into the arts high school; Mrs. Cafritz's ex-husband, Conrad Cafritz; philanthropist Bitsy Folger; National Symphony board head and gala patron Michael Brewer; Smithsonian Undersecretary Constance Newman; Rep. Jim Leach; and Washington Opera Executive Vice President Gasby Greeley.

Other honorees included first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton (in absentia), writer Maya Angelou, opera tenor George Shirley, entrepreneur Sidney Harman, painter Jacob Lawrence, comedian and Ellington alumnus Dave Chappelle; and jazz pianist Billy Taylor. All represented, in one way or another, the legacy of Mr. Ellington in the present day.

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