SAN DIEGO — Sir Edmund Hillary, who in 1953 became the first man to stand on the peak of Mt. Everest, makes Indiana Jones look like "the shy, retiring type," according to actor Gerald McRaney.
McRaney, the popular star of television's "Simon and Simon" detective series, nearly upstaged the famous explorer at last week's "An Evening with Sir Edmund Hillary," the fifth annual UC San Diego Medical Center Auxiliary celebrity dinner.
Having attended last year's evening with comedian Steve Allen, McRaney agreed to serve this year as the fund-raiser's master of ceremonies. His visit to the Sheraton Harbor Island East hotel's Cuyamaca Room was brief, thanks to a television production schedule that allowed him to slip out of Hollywood for little longer than it would take the average person to down a three-course dinner (McRaney, in fact, was not able to stay for the meal). But his visit was also to the point, since his remarks helped lift the crowd's anticipation of Hillary's lecture to, shall we say, the summit of excitement. He used the simplest of means, including the reading of passages from Hillary's memoirs, that were couched in such a matter-of-fact tone that they made the rigors of camp life and the vicissitudes of climbing Mt. Everest seem little more challenging than spending a day lolling on the sands of Mission Beach.
Hillary took to the teasing with the good nature of a man who has come to regard peril as, if not exactly a lark, at least a manageable situation. An appropriately mountainous man (he stands 6-foot-3 in his socks, and looks even larger), with a craggy brow and what one guest called "a marvelously toothy grin," Hillary proved to be the auxiliary's best draw ever. The dinner not only attracted a record number of patrons, but also record proceeds--more than half the guests paid a hefty surcharge for the privilege of attending a private, pre-dinner champagne reception with the explorer.
At the reception, Hillary stood in the receiving line between event chairman Penny West and her husband, Dr. John West, who himself led an expedition to the slopes of Everest in 1981 to study the physiological effects of high-altitude activities. The Wests and Hillary have been friends for several years, which, naturally, had much to do with Hillary's presence at the event.
Few of the guests seemed shy at the prospect of meeting Hillary, although one held back, explaining to committee member Judith Johnson that he was worried that the explorer might be tired of shaking hands. Johnson reassured him that, "With all Sir Edmund's gone through, shaking hands for an hour should be a snap." And so it seemed to be. Hillary chatted pleasantly with each guest in turn, mostly about his current duties as New Zealand's high commissioner to India and Nepal, and his work among the people of the Himalayas.
The dinner gong saved Hillary from further labors in the receiving line, and not a moment too soon for those guests who knew the menu in advance. It turned out to be something of a triumph for dinner designer Audrey Geisel, who planned a meal that more neatly followed the evening's theme than has any in recent memory. Commencing with a mildly spiced lentil salad, it continued with a "six-boy" chicken curry ("boys," a term retained from the days of the British Viceroyalty in India, refers to the number of condiments served with a curry) and fragile popadum breads. The desserts, individual hillocks of chocolate mousse, had been dusted with powdered white chocolate, so that they looked like so many snow-capped mountain peaks.
Thus fueled, Hillary took the podium to deliver his address, which took the form of a travelogue and dealt largely with his climb of Mt. Everest. His remark that 200 people have succeeded him on the mountain's summit, thus making the climb "pretty routine," brought laughter, as may have been intended, but Hillary's slides of the ice fields and sheer cliffs he scaled provoked a sober and respectful hush.
Later, he showed slides of several of the other mountains he has climbed, and even though he dismissed these as "relatively easy," they looked to be out of the grasp of nearly everyone except, perhaps, armchair explorers. All in all, Hillary's comments drew immense interest, but it is doubtful that they will set off a stampede of San Diegans in the direction of Everest.
UCSD Medical Center Dean Dr. Robert Petersdorf was in the audience, as were Associate Dean Dr. Ruth Covell; auxiliary President Joan Ward and her husband, David, and historian Paul Pfau, who is researching Hillary's monumental climb.
The dinner committee included Helen Boyden, John Colonghi, Mary Jo Evans, Jeannie Williams, Susan Garfin, Susan Stone, Dale Reeder, Evelyn Meyer, Pat JaCoby, Connie Galluzzi, Ellen MacVean, Bennie O'Brien and Joanne Meredith.