Walter B. Gerken received the National Human Relations Award on Wednesday, when the American Jewish Committee staged a benefit dinner in his honor at the Irvine Hilton and Towers. Gerken is chairman of Pacific Mutual Life Insurance Co. in Newport Beach.
At $200 per person, 350 people attended the black-tie tribute, including past award recipients Ray Watson and John Lusk.
Hinda Beral, director of the committee's Orange County chapter, estimated event proceeds at $50,000. "We get tremendous representation (at our events) from all segments of the community--business and professional, Jewish and non-Jewish," Beral said.
Committee president Michael Lapin said the award is given for general community service. "Nobody gets this award for any specific act," Lapin said. "There are a hundred things this man has done to make this community a better place for all of us to live."
Gerken, in fact, has done so much that it was difficult to talk of specific achievements, Lapin said. Gerken has worked with Planned Parenthood, United Way of America, California Business Roundtable, Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian, the Orange County Performing Arts Center, California Tomorrow and the UC Irvine Foundation.
Judy Rosener, assistant dean of UCI's graduate school of management, called Gerken "a class act: the epitome of a corporate CEO with a social conscience."
Psychologist Linda Algazi, a neighbor of Gerken, recalled that when he remodeled their home in the posh Spyglass Hill area of Newport Beach, he left an old basketball hoop hanging over his driveway.
"His children are all grown," Algazi said. "And Walter doesn't play basketball. Everyone else had taken down their hoops--most people think basketball hoops aren't classy enough (for Spyglass Hill). But Walter left his up. He wanted it for the neighborhood children."
After his planned retirement from management of Pacific Mutual in September, Gerken said he will remain active in the company and community and will continue to work with United Way, UC Irvine and the Hoag Hospital Cancer Center, among other groups.
"I believe that all of us who have the opportunity have an obligation to serve the community," Gerken said. "I got my master's degree in 1950 from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs (at Syracuse University). My bent toward good citizenship came early in life."
Following dinner, Richard Weiss, the committee's national director and a Los Angeles home builder, presented Gerken with the award and suggested that Gerken was one of 36 Hebrew saints called "Lamed Vovnicks," a Hebrew term that represents the number 36. According to legend, Weiss explained, these 36 saints were strategically placed throughout the world by God to make life tolerable, positive and joyous.
"No one really knows, but I suspect . . . nay, I am certain, that right here in Orange County . . . there is a Lamed Vovnick, and he is my friend, our honoree this evening, Walter B. Gerken," Weiss said.
Betsy Sanders, vice president of Nordstrom Inc., served as master of ceremonies. Gerken was joined by his wife, Darlene; son Andrew; daughter Ellen and son-in-law Robert Mainthow.