I am sitting here watching the first interview on the new Piers Morgan show with Oprah Winfrey and thinking, "Aw, shucks I should have gotten her first." No I do not have my own TV show, but I did have the responsibility of "recruiting" honorees for our annual award ceremony at the Eleanor Roosevelt Center at Val Kill, in Hyde Park, New York, where I was the Executive Director for seven years following my career as a US diplomat. Of all the things I did at the Center, including starting what has become a premier leadership program for high school girls, the annual Val-Kill Medal Ceremony was the high point of my work there. It was the most visible and important aspect of our work as it was the one day each year that about 500 people came to Eleanor Roosevelt's Val-Kill home to see deserving award winners acknowledged for the work they did that reflects the humanitarian legacy of Eleanor Roosevelt.
I should say that the legacy of Mrs. Roosevelt is huge and covers her work in promoting the rights of women and African Americans, to human rights in general and support of the United Nations, expanding the role of First Ladies into the social and humanitarian arenas, her role as a social activist and advocate for social reform, her work for refugees and politically persecuted people of all kinds,her efforts for poor people, her role as a journalist and educator. The list of her achievement could go on and on. Although ERVK is a small nonprofit, it carries the enormous responsibility of promoting her legacy, unlike any other organization that carries her name. Its place on the site of her historic home, rooted on the role of the organization in saving Mrs. Roosevelt's home from likely destruction, gives ERVK a status that raises high above the size of its staff or its budget. The annual Val-Kill Medal Ceremony succeeded in honoring such individuals as Mrs. Hillary Clinton, Queen Noor, Lea Rabin, Amb. Richard Holbrooke, Cristopher Reeve, Dorothy Height, Richard Gere, former Brazilian First Lady Ruth Cardoso, Bill and Judith Moyers, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Vartan Gregoian and many others.
We had a remarkable process at ERVK in deciding on people to invite to be our honorees. A Medals Selection Committee pondered for months over potential nominees and suggestions. There were criteria as well for achieving balance and diversity in the annual ceremony which usually honors four individuals: a balance between men and women, ethnic groups, local, national and international honorees, and among backgrounds in history, journalism, social, human right and humanitarian pursuits, philanthropists, civil rights figures.
Once decisions had been made, I was in charge of approaching and securing the honorees. That's when the fun began, because one of the things you learn in approaching famous people is that they are not easy to approach. They are surrounded by barriers to access and their contact information is often very difficult come by. More importantly, in seeking to capture the time and attention of very busy and important people, it often required more than just an address or a phone number. How do you marshall some support for your approach to them? All of this require considerable research, from the selection phase to the recruitment stage.
Oprah Winfrey was a natural selection for our committee. She is adored by millions of people around the world for her humanitarianism and empathy for ordinary people and those struggling with life's difficulties. It was interesting that Piers Morgan succeeded in getting Oprah to go on his show by going through her best friend Gail King. Well, I too went through Gail. I am not sure how I discovered who Gail King was, but I did, and I also happened to have met somebody from Hartford, Connecticut who knew her phone number. I called her and got her advice as to how to contact Oprah through her Harpo Entertainment Group in Chicago. This was in the year 2000. I wrote Oprah and waited, had contact with an aide, and did receive a response from her. Unfortunately, she said she could not accept the award that year because she was "over-extended" for the year, though this was just February. This was understandable, although I must admit it was a disappointment. After all, Mrs. Roosevelt had done so much for women and for African Americans. Oprah seemed in some ways to be the ideal beneficiary of her efforts. I do not remember clearly why we did not persist in seeking her for another year. I guess it was because we feared she would have the same reason for refusing us in the future. Perhaps I should have tried to get Gail King to give us more direct support for our request. Piers Morgan apparently did just that and succeeded where I had failed. Of course, ERVK is not CNN.