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Benjamin Epstein

Gala for Schuller Proves a Blessing for Burn Center

September 23, 1985|Benjamin Epstein

The Supreme Pontiff, Pope John Paul II, cordially extended his apostolic good wishes from the Vatican. Our pontificator on the Potomac, Ronald Reagan, likewise forwarded congratulations. Rabbi Hershel Brooks read from the Psalms.

Let's just say that the Rev. Robert Schuller, on the occasion of his 30th anniversary of ministry in Orange County, had all bases covered: This party--it took place Thursday night at the Disneyland Hotel--was blessed. (Not, however, by His Holiness Pope John III, who was listed in the program but whose office ended in 574 A.D.)

More than 1,200 attended; several who couldn't be there--among them Vice President George Bush, U.S. Sens. Pete Wilson, Alan Cranston and Bob Dole, and state Sen. John Seymour--made appearances via videotape.

Honorary chairs for the event, which earned the UC Irvine Burn Center $100,000, were Marie Rothenberg and her 9-year-old son, David. David, who made a miraculous recovery after having been set afire by his father two years ago in a Buena Park motel room, has undergone numerous surgical procedures at the Burn Center in an effort to reconstruct his face, hands and other parts of his body.

Disfigured by Grenade

Among the guests were David Rothenberg's doctor, Burn Center Director Bruce Achauer, and a fellow burn victim, evangelist David Roever, whom he met earlier this year on television.

"David and I are together a lot now," said Roever, disfigured by a grenade exploding inches from his face while on river patrol in Vietnam. "We call each other. He loves to show me his little powered car, his bicycle--it's really neat what's happening.

"My biggest fear is that as Davey grows up and moves toward the dating game, he'll have all these inhibitions he doesn't need to have--unless somebody can keep one step ahead of him. His mother is doing that. She's so outgoing and delightful, and he's riding on that, sharing her personality.

"I've got some personal experience, and I'm going to try to stay ahead of him, too. The first thing I learned about relating to people, about being disfigured and them being comfortable, is that when they know I'm comfortable with myself, they're comfortable with me, too. It all boils down to self-acceptance."

Marie Rothenberg encourages David's public appearances. "As long as people don't seem to be aware of the suffering and pain burn victims go through, there hasn't been enough exposure," she said. "The more exposure, the better off it is for David and for other burn victims."

David was operated on twice this summer, according to Achauer. "He only has a little less hair than I do now," said Achauer, chuckling. "He gave us a karate demonstration a couple of weeks ago. . . ."

"He's going to try for his yellow belt real soon," added Marie Rothenberg.

The Boy Scouts presented the colors. The national anthem was sung by 9-year-old DeLeon Richards; red, white and blue balloons deluged the stage. Steve Peck (he's Gregory Peck's son) directed and produced two films for the event, one tracing the history of the Schuller ministry, the other about the Burn Center.

Schuller celebrated his 59th birthday last Monday. This year also marks 35 years since Schuller's ordination; 35 years of marriage to his wife, Arvella; 15 years on television, and 5 years since the dedication of the Crystal Cathedral.

"Progress is never possible without some price and pain," noted Schuller about the growth of the church from 50 cars in the Orange Drive-In Theater to the 10,000-window Cathedral. "That's been true every time we've moved forward. Most painful is the recollection that I lost, permanently, some of my closest friends by doing what we had to do--go forward."

When master of ceremonies Jack Perkins mistakenly introduced Roger Miller--"I knew I was going to do that," Perkins moaned--pianist Roger Williams obliged with a few bars from the other Roger's "King of the Road." Schuller avenged his musician friend when he took the stage: "Mr. Perkins, I've watched you ever since your show, Wild Kingdom. Thank you, Marlin. . . ."

At the conclusion of Williams' solo program, the pianist and Perkins collaborated on a medley based on Schuller's most famous slogans, including "Inch by inch, anything's a cinch," "Tough times never last but tough people do" and, most appropriate, "Turn your scars into stars."

UC Irvine Chancellor Jack Peltason, who accepted the $100,000 check for the Burn Center, commented on a banner that read "Robert Schuller/UCI." "We have knowledge, he has truth," he said.

Perkins introduced David Rothenberg, who came to the stage with Marie. "If there are a thousand people in this room," said Perkins, "999 have not been to hell. But one of them has--and come back."

David is a man of few words. But with some prompting from his mother, he said, "Thank you for coming and helping the Burn Center, and congratulations to Dr. Schuller," and waved his hand.

Victor Andrews was event chairman; his co-chairs were Horatio Alger Award-winner John Crean and Athalie Clark, who was accompanied by Dr. William F. House of the House Ear Institute. Also there was industrialist Armand Hammer.

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