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Highlights of 1998 NELA Gala

Tony Bennett, President Clinton, and Steve Forbes Highlight Sons of Italy Foundation®'s 1998 NELA Gala

Contact: Diane E. Crespy
Phone: (202) 547-2900
(Photos available upon request)

Washington, D.C., May 26, 1998 - More than 800 people, including congressmen, media, corporate leaders, diplomats and other distinguished guests gathered at the National Building Museum in the nation's capital Thursday, May 21, for the Sons of Italy Foundation®'s (SIF) 10th Anniversary National Education & Leadership Awards (NELA) Gala; an event that was highlighted by emcee Regis Philbin, guest speakers President Clinton and Steve Forbes, and a special performance by Tony Bennett.

The overwhelming tone of the event was commemoration in the wake of Frank Sinatra's recent passing, but the main emphases of the gala were education and leadership.

"I think it's important tonight because of what you stand for to note that while we have lost his remarkable voice, we have also lost a generous spirit," President Clinton said of Sinatra's death on May 14.

As the recipient of the foundation's Second Annual Humanitarian Award, Sinatra was commemorated for his philanthropy but presenters, speakers, and honorees alike remembered him also for his artistry and for the characteristics that made up Frank Sinatra the man. Tony Bennett called him "the greatest American I ever met" and actor and SIF spokesperson Tony Lo Bianco said he was and will always be "the best of the best."

Guest speaker Steve Forbes emphasized the importance of the SIF, remarking that the foundation supports the American dream, "allowing each and all of us to develop our God-given talents. He mentioned Sinatra and Phil Guarascio, General Motors vice president and general manager of advertising and marketing, as having exemplified the dream and being the living symbol of the dream, respectively.

Guarascio was honored at the gala, receiving the National Education & Leadership Award (NELA). The award is presented annually to an outstanding member of the Italian-American community who contributes to and embodies the principles of education and leadership.

"The desire to win can take you places you've never dreamed of," Guarascio said. "For me it was the upper reaches of the world's largest corporation, where an open-minded and inclusive culture embraced my slightly off-center style, and believed in my belief in the power of ideas and a commitment to a lifetime of Renaissance-like learning."

The SIF had 12 other remarkable Italian Americans to honor during its reception and dinner in the museum's elegant main hall; they are some of the brightest and most accomplished young men and women from across the country. The foundation has been granting college scholarships since 1969 and last night awarded more than $60,000 to the students. Their qualifications, ranging from perfect SAT scores and top-notch grade point averages to national awards and profound involvement in community service, were celebrated.

President Clinton took the opportunity to meet each scholarship winner and congratulate them all on their accomplishments, and Guarascio had some reflective words to pass on to the students.

"Look around you," he said. "Tonight you are surrounded by the trappings and essence of success. You are surrounded by winners."

Tony Bennett performed some of the songs of Billie Holiday, Fred Astaire, Johnny Mercer, and his own signature tune "I Left My Heart in San Francisco." Later, he accepted the Humanitarian Award for Frank Sinatra, as Sinatra's widow, Barbara, had requested.

The NELA Gala, which has been in planning for more than a year, became what is now the crowning achievement of the SIF and, without doubt, a memorable evening for all. SIF President Paul Polo remarked, "It's the proudest moment I ever had as a member of the Sons of Italy®."

The Sons of Italy Foundation® is the philanthropic arm of the Order Sons of Italy in America®, the oldest and most demographically diverse organization of Italian-American men and women in North America. The SIF's main areas of focus are education, cultural advancement and preservation, medical research and health care, and disaster relief.