It is such a pleasure to write, for a change, about a program that brings joy and pride to Pittsburgh, the United States and the world. Most of the time I find myself writing about wars, starving migrants adrift at sea and other subjects of indignation or despair.
The program is the Heinz Family Foundation awards, presented this year by the foundation chairman, Teresa Heinz Kerry, in a ceremony at her home in Fox Chapel last Wednesday. And it honors the late Sen. H. John Heinz III, who died in a tragic airplane accident in 1991. The awards, presented since 1993, this year went to six individuals or teams and totaled $1.25 million.
The people who received them have made unbelievable contributions to the world. We can be thankful that America is still producing such people — dedicated, hardworking and focused firmly on the most important problems facing humankind. Seeing and hearing them was almost enough to disperse the dark clouds swirling around my head as my phone rings with robocalls from candidates and as the media fill with pieces about candidates whom I wish would migrate, by boat, to Malaysia or southern Italy.
Before I cheerfully abandon the subject of the U.S. 2016 elections, let me say what a great loss to all of us John Heinz’s death was. Many people at the ceremony lamented that he hadn’t lived long enough to run for president, as he would have been a candidate heads above the current crop of no-neck monsters, in the words of Liz Taylor in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
It is also an enormous tribute to Mrs. Heinz Kerry that she continues to commemorate the late senator with a program that honors people who should be honored. As a former 35-year career diplomat, I also would say that her current husband, Secretary of State John F. Kerry, serves our nation with a dedication and distinction that I, who worked under 12 secretaries, have not seen the likes of before.
The Heinz Family Foundation awards this year recognized achievements in the arts and humanities; the environment; the human condition; public policy; and technology, the economy and employment.
The foundation put the visiting awardees in contact with interested parties in Pittsburgh, and I was invited to attend a meeting convened by the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh with Aaron T. Wolf, the awardee for public policy.
Mr. Wolf spoke on his specialty, “Navigating Peace: Conflict and Cooperation over Shared Water Resources.” The subject is, roughly, how nations that normally might be hostile to each other can be induced to work together to make the most efficient use of limited water resources. The scholarly name for the discipline is hydropolitics.
It is, to say the least, a hot-button issue. One disputed river basin is the Jordan, running through Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian West Bank and Syria. It has been quiet since 1970, through all the troubles that have plagued that region.
Another is the Indus, of concern to China, India and Pakistan, not each other’s favorite neighbors. The most recent major river dispute, over the Nile, apparently has been at least temporarily resolved. Ethiopia is building a dam that affects both Sudan and Egypt. There are 263 such basins.
Others were recognized for addressing problems critical to humankind. Federica Perera of the Columbia University Center for Children’s Environmental Health has spent decades working on the health consequences for children exposed to environmental contaminants. She walked the group along the horrifying path that led to her discovery of their effects.
Former active-duty Marines William McNulty and Jacob Wood formed Team Rubicon in Los Angeles to deploy veterans of America’s wars as disaster emergency responders. The team started by organizing help for Haiti after its 2010 earthquake. Now, with 25,000 members, it works to provide assistance after disasters while also helping veterans re-engage in society by performing useful work that they know how to do. Listening to the two Marines, one could not help but think of the thousands and thousands of veterans returning to American society from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, sometimes damaged by their experiences.
Sangeeta Bhatia, a scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is employing principles of microchip fabrication to develop microlivers that can screen drugs for toxicity — as opposed to using human livers. She also is seeking to attract more women into science, technology, engineering and mathematics. I note that three of the six honorees were women.
Finally, the sixth awardee, who was unable to come to Pittsburgh for the ceremony, is the well-known author, illustrator and cartoonist Roz Chast. Think, “The New Yorker.” She is particularly interested in the problems of caring for elderly parents in their final years, including dementia and caregivers’ feelings of guilt. She does her best to find humor and humanity in the difficult, nearly universal issues she explores.
All in all, the Heinz Family Foundation does the world, America and Pittsburgh an enormous favor through this program. Thank you, and may it continue.
Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1976).