Contentious Political Climate Gives Way to Humor at Al Smith Dinner


House Speaker Paul Ryan delivered the keynote address at the 72nd annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner Oct. 19 in Manhattan.

“I don’t think I’ve seen this many New York liberals, this many Wall Street CEOs, in one room since my last visit to the White House,” Ryan quipped.

Ryan, R-Wisconsin, a Catholic, shared the dais in the Grand Ballroom of the New York Hilton Midtown with Cardinal Dolan, who hosted the event, and delivered the evening’s principal speech in the spirit of collegiality and good-humor that is a hallmark of the annual gala.

In what was no laughing matter, Ryan praised Cardinal Dolan and his service to the Church, including in Wisconsin, where he served as Archbishop of Milwaukee, 2002-2009. “We in Wisconsin, like you, adore Cardinal Timothy Dolan.”

In keeping with the longstanding tradition of the foundation’s signature event, Ryan came together with some of the country’s most prominent civic, business and religious leaders to support charities that serve New York’s neediest children.

Among the 815 guests in attendance were Gov. Andrew Cuomo; Mayor Bill de Blasio; NYPD Police Commissioner James O’Neill; FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro; former mayors Michael Bloomberg and David Dinkins; former police commissioner Ray Kelly, and Henry Kissinger, a former Secretary of State.

Actress and producer Patricia Heaton, a Catholic, wife and mother of four sons, acted as emcee for the event, marking the first time a woman has served in that capacity. “Patricia Heaton, she is a Hollywood Republican. A Hollywood Republican,” Ryan said. “That is an oxymoron, which clearly was the word that Rex Tillerson was searching for.”

In another first, Mary Callahan Erdoes, who previously served on the foundation’s board of directors, participated in the dinner in her new role as vice chair. She is CEO of J. P. Morgan’s Asset and Wealth Management division.

The dinner is dedicated to the memory of Alfred E. Smith, a former governor of New York who in 1928 became the first Catholic to be nominated by a major political party as the Democratic candidate for president of the United States.

The dinner honors a cause that transcends the political rhetoric of the day and exemplifies the vision of Smith, who was known as “The Happy Warrior” for his ability to maintain a positive outlook as he tackled the pressing social issues of his day.

Each year the foundation carries on the tradition of “The Happy Warrior” by recognizing an individual who exemplifies the character and leadership of Smith. The 2017 Happy Warrior Award recipient was John K. Castle, chairman and CEO of Castle Harlan Inc.

In introducing Castle, Mrs. Callahan Erdoes acknowledged his presence at the dinner for 38 years. Noting the night was a special evening for him, Castle said he was honored to be the recipient of The Happy Warrior Award. Castle said he suspected his 38-year run contributed to his selection.

“During those 38 years, I’ve heard a lot of bad jokes,” Castle said. “And, unfortunately, a fair number of those ‘bad jokes’ got elected,” he quipped.

Cardinal Dolan, as Archbishop of New York, presided at the dinner. “For close to three-quarters of a century, this celebrated evening has been one of joy, civility—most of the time—unity, patriotism, friendship, grateful memories and charity,” Cardinal Dolan said in closing remarks.

“Those are all virtues,” the cardinal said. “And this event is really all about virtue; the virtue of a wonderful politician named Alfred Emanuel Smith, whose service to God, this state, this city, this one nation under God, was legendary. The ‘Happy Warrior,’ who stopped smiling only for a few moments when confronted with rejection and bigotry because of his own ethnic background and deep Catholic faith when he ran for president.

“The virtue of Jack Castle, who this evening received the award named after that ‘Happy Warrior.’ The virtue of Patty Heaton, our emcee this evening, whose joy and commitment to God and country are so luminously radiant.

“The virtue of a national leader, admired by all sides for his own patience, determination and sense of duty, whose own faith and patriotism, love of family and loyalty to friends—and I’m sure honored to be one of them—is so uplifting, Speaker Paul Ryan.”

The cardinal also extolled the virtue of the Smith Foundation board, including the devotion of Mrs. Callahan Erdoes, and of “an abundance of civic and political, business, philanthropic and communications leaders, and of all of you, folks, whose generosity has made this the most successful non-presidential campaign year ever, bringing us close to $3.5 million dollars for direct service to women and children of all faiths, or none at all, in this grand city.”

Charities and educational institutions devoted to New York’s children are the dinner beneficiaries.

The cardinal closed the evening with Benediction. “We summon the virtues of humility and gratitude as I thank all of you, and as we all praise our God, from whom all blessings flow.”

Brooklyn Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio delivered the invocation. “Of all your creatures, Almighty Lord, you have given only humans the ability to laugh. May we be of good humor tonight, thinking of you who are our final goal, that we may find mercy and love in this world that will lead us to live in peace with one another.”

Ryan belongs to St. John Vianney parish in Janesville, Wis., where he served in his youth as an altar boy. Accompanying him to the dinner and also seated on the dais was his wife Janna. They are the parents of a daughter and two sons.

Ryan joined a list of political dignitaries, cultural leaders and presidential candidates who have served as speakers, among them John F. Kennedy, Winston Churchill, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan.

For the first time in its history, the dinner was not held at the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan, which is currently under renovation and restoration.


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