The recent election was put on the back burner for one night as major figures from both political parties gathered to celebrate the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center's 75th anniversary at a Texas-sized gala with a host of entertainers, along with many top names from Houston's social, political and medical spheres.
Vice president Joe Biden, who has grown close to officials at the mammoth institution after his beloved son, Beau Biden, was treated for cancer there but ultimately lost his courageous battle last year, lavished praise on former President George H.W. Bush, who was seated at the front table. In a heartfelt, sometimes rambling 29-minute talk, Biden saluted the elder Bush as "one of the finest men I have ever known in my life."
"Throughout his career he conducted himself with absolute dignity, grace and conviction. America yearns for the day when you set the standard for political discourse. The level has become too crass and too course and too crude, all things which you have abhorred. Mr. President, your voice should be imitated by a new generation of leaders of both political parties," Biden said to loud applause.
Biden also commended MD Anderson doctors and nurses, singling out Dr. Al Yung for special praise. "(Beau) was treated here, and when I say treated, I mean that in every sense of the word. He was not only treated medically, he was treated with dignity and respect. And he was treated with a sense of hope and expectation," Biden said.
During the sold-out gala, which raised nearly $14 million, MD Anderson president Dr. Ronald DePinho announced the Beau Biden Chair for Brain Cancer Research will be established at the center.
More than 2,000 supporters gathered in a tent half the size of a football field on Holcombe Avenue to salute the center and its mission, detailed in the popular slogan of "making cancer history." Another high point of the evening came when TNT sportscaster Craig Sager, who is battling acute myeloid leukemia and recently underwent a rare third bone marrow transplant at MD Anderson, spoke movingly about the hospital and the staff, including the Ethiopian cafeteria worker who encouraged him to eat to regain his strength.
Known for his wildly-colored sportcoats, Sager surprised Dr. Muzaffar Qazilbash and Dr. Naveen Pemmaraju with blazers for each of them.
The evening was interspersed with speakers, including former Secretary of State James Baker, University of Texas System Chancellor William McRaven, and the Coghill family, who detailed their battle with the disease. Mixed in were electrifying musical performances from Yolanda Adams, Reba McEntire, Ana María Martínez, the Houston Symphony Orchestra, the Houston Celebration Chorus, the Houston Children’s Chorus, and The Tenors.
After one of the tenors serenaded Jill Biden during a song while he was backstage, the vice president good-naturedly chided her seatmate, former president Bush, for allowing it to happen. "I leave my wife in your company for a half-hour and I find some Italian guy singing to her," Biden said in mock outrage. "What in the hell are you doing Mr. President? I counted on you for protection Mr. President. (The singer) must have known her maiden name was Giacoppa, I don't know. Jill, I saw the smile on your face and I didn't like it too much."
Among the star-studded crowd were emcees Bob Schieffer and Gerald McRaney, U.S. Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, former U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, U.S. Representatives Mike McCaul, Kevin Brady, John Culberson, Al Green, Ted Poe, Gene Green, and Sheila Jackson Lee, and Texas State Reps. Tom Craddick, Carol Alvarado, and Boris Miles.
Also saluting the cancer center's anniversary were Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, Houston City Council members Ellen Cohen and Jack Christie. Sheridan and John Eddie Williams, former MD Anderson presidents Dr. Charles LeMaistre and Dr. John Mendelsohn, Dr. Lynda Chin, Andi LeMaistre, Anne Mendelsohn, Pat Schieffer, Katie and Pat Oxford, Carolyn Farb, and Margaret Alkek Williams.
Soon after entering the tent, guests signed a 30-foot-long Strike Through Cancer Wall with a red marker to honor a loved one and symbolize the effort to “strike out” cancer. The center, which was founded in 1941, has treated more than 1.1 million patients and is generally recognized at the nation's top hospital for cancer care and research.