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Women of Influence : Activist Leads Honors for Outstanding Group

October 20, 1995|TINA DAUNT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dressed in a conservative business suit, Noel Irwin-Hentschel shifts nervously from one foot to the other. "We should have brought flowers for the princess," she tells her assistant. "As a greeting."

But it turns out not to matter. The princess, Basma Bint Talal of Jordan, is just glad to see her friend. She strides quickly through the waiting area at the Los Angeles airport's international terminal and embraces Irwin-Hentschel.

"It's so good to see you," Talal tells her. "It's been too long." Talal turns to an onlooker and adds, "Noel is such a wonderful person."

An understated woman who dresses more like a flight attendant in modest uniform than a millionaire businesswoman on a crusade, Irwin-Hentschel beams as the princess takes her arm. This has become her life, of late, keeping the company of some of the world's most influential women. The owner of a $150-million Los Angeles-based travel agency, Irwin-Hentschel has used her money and influence to start a nonprofit organization, called the Noel Foundation, to create an award program to recognize outstanding women.

This evening, the Jordanian princess and a cast of other dignitaries will join Irwin-Hentschel in honoring Mother Teresa, Irish President Mary Robinson, South African activists Helen Suzman and Adelaide Tambo, Argentine cancer researcher Christiane Dosne Pasqualini and former German Olympic athlete Marianne Buggenhagen.

All the women have agreed to accept the awards in person, with the exception of Mother Teresa, who because of failing health told Irwin-Hentschel that she might not be able to attend. "She told us to pray that she would be able to come," Irwin-Hentschel said. "I've never prayed so much in my life. We are all praying."

With tremendous charm, deep pockets and a skill for winning friends with her down-to-earth style, Irwin-Hentschel began her quest to recognize the world's great women six years ago. She went to the United Nations and offered her assistance in funding projects that would help women and children around the world. From there, she rallied support from a network of royalty and dignitaries, raising funds for everything from literacy programs to AIDS care.

"You meet people and you develop, hopefully, friendships with them," Irwin-Hentschel said. "You maintain relationships. I was raised to believe that people are people. If you ask for their help and you've got something they believe in too, they are going to help you."

Now she counts such people as Talal and Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto among her closest associates. (Irwin-Hentschel keeps a picture of Bhutto in her office with an autographed note that reads: "Noel, thank you for your support and friendship, Benazir.")

"I respect them on their personality and not what their position is," she said. "I enjoy being with these women as much as the Sisters of Charity. They have the heart and warmth about them. It has nothing to do with their position in life. It more has to do with how we all have a common sisterhood."

Irwin-Hentschel's associates describe her as awe-inspiring.

"She is an extraordinary woman," said attorney George Kieffer, who worked with Irwin-Hentschel through the Urban League.

"I would describe her as a 'Readers Digest figure.' She's one of those characters you meet in life that are special, unusual and beyond the average human being. . . . She is a problem solver. With this effervescent smile and happy bearing, she goes through the wall to get it done."

Raised in Los Angeles, Irwin-Hentschel was the oldest of 10 children. She is married to Gordon Hentschel, a resort developer, and has seven children, ranging in age from 3 to 17.

In every other way a straightforward, unpretentious woman, she nonetheless coquettishly won't disclose her age other than to say she's in her early 40s.

Since she was a teen-ager, she has loved to travel. After she graduated from Notre Dame High School on the Westside, she took part-time jobs to pay for a European adventure on $5 a day. Later, she took a job as a travel guide in Israel and, after returning to Los Angeles, she went to work on the tour desk for British Caledonia Airways.

In 1977, she started her own business, American Tours International, with her $5,000 in savings. (Her travel business now brings more than 800,000 people to the United States each year, Irwin-Hentschel said.)

In 1988, Irwin-Hentschel, a devout Catholic, experienced an event that she said changed her life. While in New Delhi with her husband for a business conference, she attended a speech by Mother Teresa. "She said we have to step forward and use our expertise that we have in business to help others," Irwin-Hentschel said.

At the end of the talk, Irwin-Hentschel walked up to speak with Mother Teresa. The nun hugged her and the businesswoman started to cry.

Irwin-Hentschel returned home and decided to start an organization dedicated to helping women and children in the poorest regions of the world. At the suggestion of her husband, she called her group the Noel Foundation, because "Noel means Christmas," she said.

She organized her first award banquet in 1990, with assistance from the United Nations Development Fund for Women. At a ceremony at the United Nations, the foundation presented awards to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, former Philippine President Corazon Aquino, Bhutto and former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland for their "leadership and humanitarianism."

Irwin-Hentschel then spent the next few years raising about $1 million to help various UNIFEM projects.

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