- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 7, 2006

National Geographic Society Chairman Gilbert M. Grosvenor got a rather astounding gift for his 75th birthday at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel Wednesday night — no less than $7 million for his favorite cause, geography education.

Monetary backing for the new Gilbert M. Grosvenor Fund for Geography Education (including more than 100 $10,000-and-above gifts) came from corporations, foundations and such well-heeled private contributors as Lady Bird Johnson, Lee and Juliet Folger, Carl Lindner, Joseph L. Allbritton, Frank Saul, Bill Marriott and Bill and Dorothy McSweeny, who helped make the evening “the largest non-political fundraiser in Washington — ever,” according to National Geographic Society President John M. Fahey Jr.

“This is the best gift in the world,” said Mr. Grosvenor, standing next to a row of enlarged front pages from foreign-language editions of National Geographic Magazine (founded by his grandfather, Gilbert H. Grosvenor, in 1903). “But the real winners tonight are K through 12 students in America. … We will resurrect geography education.”

A recent study by National Geographic showed 60 percent of Americans aged 18 to 24 couldn’t find Iraq on a map of the Middle East and 48 percent couldn’t find Mississippi on a U.S. map, even after the state figured prominently in news coverage of Hurricane Katrina.

“The challenge is making children excited about geography,” said Mary Lee Elden, director of the magazine’s geography competition, straining to make herself heard over the Rwandan drummers who provided the evening’s entertainment along with Brazilian stiltwalkers, Chinese percussionists, Indian dancers, Canadian fiddlers and D.C.’s Metropolitan Baptist Choir. Needless to report, all looked as if they had jumped out of the glossy pages of a recent issue.

Present to celebrate Mr. Grosvenor’s milestone and push the importance of geography literacy were the National Geographic explorers-in-residence, including geneticist Spencer Wells, oceanographer Robert Ballard (famous for finding the Titanic wreckage), anthropologist Wade Davis and marine biologist Sylvia Earle, also known as “Her Deepness.”

“We’re at a critical moment in history where we have the power to protect the integrity of our planet,” Ms. Earle said. “But we — all of us — have to know to care, we have to aspire to global learning and global caring. That’s what Gil Grosvenor’s legacy is all about.”

Also spotted among the 1,000 guests at the five-course dinner with former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw as master of ceremonies were Sens. Ted Stevens, Lamar Alexander and Thad Cochran; Librarian of Congress James Billington; HUD Secretary Alphonso R. Jackson, former Sen. Alan Simpson; AOL co-founders Jim Kimsey and Steve Case; Chinese Ambassador Zhou Wenzhong and Mayor Anthony A. Williams.

As the evening wound down — after nearly five hours of celebration — Mr. Marriott closed by offering the guest of honor his hotel of choice for his 100th birthday, a nice enough offer but not exactly the biggest motivation to stick around for another 25 years.

“Achieving geography literacy among children? Now that would be worth living for,” Mr. Grosvenor said.

— Gabriella Boston

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