- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 29, 2001

Omnipresent TV personality Regis Philbin gushed over the Lifetime Achievement Award he received from the Sons of Italy Foundation Thursday night. Then he made a confession.

"I´m honored to be here tonight, and I don´t know how to tell you this, but … I´m really only half Italian," he said to scattered laughs.

It didn´t seem to matter, especially because Mr. Philbin was the first Italian American, or the first half Italian American anyway, to receive the award at the foundation´s 13th annual National Education and Leadership Awards Gala at the National Building Museum.

Mr. Philbin, who is Italian through his mother´s family, said his father is Irish.

"Even though he was a tough Marine, my father was overwhelmed by the Italian side of my family, who would come into the house ripping and roaring, screaming and cooking, laughing and telling stories, fighting, feuding and then making up," he confided before the presentation, his voice rising to the familiar Philbin pitch.

Mr. Philbin said he was sharing the award — a crystal lion — with his late Italian grandfather, an immigrant who arrived at Ellis Island and became a longshoreman.

Past honorees, recognized for leadership and humanitarianism, have included singers Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett and race-car driver Mario Andretti. Winemaker John F. Mariani Jr. and union leader Robert A. Georgine also received awards at this year´s dinner.

The "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" host, who traded in his well-known monochromatic look for a sharp tuxedo, was in a cheerful mood — which wasn´t too surprising after hauling in two Emmy Awards the previous week, one for "Millionaire" and the other for his morning talk show, "Live With Regis and Kelly."

He is, according to master of ceremonies Sam Donaldson, "a man who Cokie Roberts, George Will, George Stephanopoulos and I bow down to every evening for keeping ABC afloat."

Tenor Michael Amante dazzled the diners, while the high notes reached by Lisa Eden prompted several guests to grab their glasses before they shattered.

"The acoustics are fabulous in this place," said one of the 950 guests, each of whom had paid at least $1,000 to sip pinot grigio and taste roulade of veal.

The evening´s entertainment also included casino circuit veteran Fred Travalena, who sang favorites from "Phantom of the Opera" in the voices of Jackie Mason, Gomer Pyle and others.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York sat at the Sheet Metal Workers table with Rep. William J. Pascrell Jr. of New Jersey and Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe. (Labor unions were very well represented.)

Mr. Philbin´s wife, Joy, along with presidential adviser Karl Rove, former Rep. Geraldine Ferraro, Italian ambassador Ferdinando Salleo and shoe designer Massimo Ferragamo, provided additional star power to the event, which raised more than $1 million for college scholarships.

Mr. Philbin told the black-tie crowd that a young woman in his studio audience Thursday morning had told him she had received a scholarship from the foundation and wouldn´t have completed her college education without it.

"I told her I would tell all of you that story tonight because it touched me very much. It shows you where your scholarships have gone and how much they have helped people," Mr. Philbin said.

The foundation promotes Italian-American culture, raises money for scholarships and fights negative stereotypes such as those perceived in the popular HBO mob drama "The Sopranos."

"It´s unfortunate, but there are some Italians involved in that kind of a scene," Mr. Philbin said in an interview. "I think is well done, incidentally, but it´s very violent. … It´s colorful and it gets a lot viewers, but it´s not about the Italians I knew and grew up with in my life."

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