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The Reluctant Heroine : Catherine Thyen, Who Shuns Spotlight, Is Given De Tocqueville Award for Her Good Works

November 21, 1994|ANN CONWAY

Don't get this picture wrong.

Publicity is not Catherine Thyen's thing.

But when you receive United Way of Orange County's first Alexis de Tocqueville Heroine Award, you've got to do it--stand there, let a photographer shoot you six ways to Sunday.

"I'm getting used to it," Thyen said before last week's United Way luncheon at Big Canyon Country Club in Newport Beach. "But it's uncomfortable, not something I seek."

It is her work on behalf of nonprofit groups such as the Orange County Performing Arts Center--she chairs its popular Candlelight Concert on Dec. 11--South Coast Repertory, the Assessment and Treatment Services Center and Big Brothers, Big Sisters of Orange County that got Thyen into United Way's spotlight.

"We wanted to honor Catherine because she is very willing to take on anything," said United Way activist Marilyn Nielsen, chairwoman of the "Women in Leadership" luncheon. "And she remains calm, serene, gracious and totally likable when everything is over. Then, she takes on something else."

On hand to watch Thyen receive her award were members of United Way's Alexis de Tocqueville Society, individuals who donate $10,000 or more per year. (De Tocqueville was the French author and statesman who wrote extensively about America's spirit of volunteerism.)

How did she feel about being singled out?

"Appreciative, but embarrassed," said Thyen, who lives in Corona del Mar. "It's like being in a classroom when the teacher calls on you to speak.

"I'd rather be taking a walk around the block. But we (who volunteer) end up doing this kind of thing because of a set of circumstances that we've gotten ourselves into."

For Thyen, the circumstances began when she was a girl living in a small rural area of Ireland. "I lived where there were a lot of visiting dramatic societies who staged plays, so supporting the theater became very important--especially for the girls. That's where I learned to be part of things."

At the heart of her philanthropy is a longing still to be part of a small community. "Orange County is a village," Thyen said, laughing. " I'm part of a village. If I thought of it any other way, I might be overwhelmed.

"I think anybody who does a lot of volunteer work probably comes from a small community. I just want to do my little bit, not make a name for myself, but be part of something."

Looking back on 20 years of volunteerism in Orange County, Thyen--who has served on several boards and assumed a dozen fund-raising chairmanships--is satisfied that the large nonprofit organizations have survived the inflated economic boon of the '80s.

"We saw a tremendous infusion of money here from the '70s through the late '80s," she said. "If you look back to the '70s, you'll see that few of the large organizations--ATSC, SCR, the center, Hoag Hospital--had the big buildings they went on to have by the end of the '80s.

"And I'm glad to say their programs have survived. The reason is, their organizations' members never lost sight of what they were supporting. That's how you ride out a high and survive a depression."

Lately, Thyen has noticed "glitter," as she calls it, creeping onto the charity scene. "There are little groups of ladies who get together to dress up, have lunch. That's fluff, not serious commitment.

"You find the real charity leadership on organization boards like the center. By the time you get to be on that board, you're giving a lot of time or money or both.

"The same with the boards of the Newport Harbor Art Museum, United Way, SCR--all of the major organization boards. You don't see window dressing there. That's the real leadership."


Shirley MacLaine feted: No sooner had Pacific Symphony supporters giggled than they groaned when Shirley MacLaine addressed them following her Segerstrom Hall performance on Friday night.

"I would like to compliment you on what you do with your money," said the Academy Award-winning actress ("Terms of Endearment") as she stood before the crowd at the Tourneau watch store in South Coast Plaza.

"As Thornton Wilder used to say, money should be spread around like manure, encouraging young things to grow."

After complimenting the arts patrons on the center--"When I stood on stage and realized it was through private contributions that you created this magnificent theater, I realized what . . . generous souls you are"--she confessed: "I've never even been to Orange County, much less played here!"

Then, gazing at the holiday-decorated retail center, she deadpanned: "I am now going to shop."

MacLaine's performance with the orchestra--which included musical tributes to her movies--"Irma La Douce," "The Apartment," and "Terms of Endearment" and a poignant portrayal of "mama Rose" from "Gypsy"--had guests buzzing about the 60-year-old entertainer's theatrical style and staying power.

"When I watched her performance, I thought she should be doing it on film or stage in New York," said the orchestra's executive director, Louis Spisto. "We are very lucky to have an entertainer who is also a great actress."

Also singing MacLaine's praises was actress Nanette Fabray, who was escorted by Howard House.

"I loved seeing Shirley tonight," said Fabray. "I've known her since the early days of television, when we did a live show together. I knew then she was a great talent. I've seen everything she has ever done."

Other guests were party co-chairmen Nadine and Gene Leyton; Joyce and Ron Hanson; conductor Richard Kaufman; Michael Gilano (who conducted one number by the orchestra after winning the chance at a symphony ball); Marvin and Pat Weiss; and Nancy Sorosky with Jim St. Clair.

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