The National Building Museum is easily one of the most challenging party venues in Washington. Its vast open space and sky-high ceilings generally dwarf the events that are held there, unless heroic measures are taken. Count on National Geographic—home to some of the world’s most fearless adventurers and explorers—to find a way to dominate the space, which is exactly what the organization did for its 125th anniversary gala on Thursday evening. They hung a stories-high screen from the ceiling and filled it with breathtaking images from the Nat Geo archives. Thus, more than 600 guests dined against a backdrop of playful baby wild animals, the Great Pyramids, exploding volcanoes, people surfing massive waves, penguins on ice floes, and soaring aerial views of forests and deserts.
The black-tie dinner was held the same day as wet and windy weather blew through the area, prompting closures and even the cancellation of some events. There was probably never any doubt that this crowd, especially the nearly 400 guests who work for Nat Geo in some capacity, would suit up in their best formalwear to get to the party. What’s a little wind and rain to people who dive to the bottom of the sea and climb to the tops of mountains? Exactly. As it happened, by the time dinner began the sky had, for the most part, cleared. It seemed everyone showed with the exception of one, and it was a notable absence. Gilbert M. Grosvenor, former president and CEO of the National Geographic Society and grandson of National Geographic magazine’s first editor, could not make it at the last minute.
But those who did make it, in addition to the supporters and guests who paid $2,500 per person to attend, were the evening’s honorees. Howard Buffett, who was introduced as “just a farmer,” but is also the son of one of the world’s richest men, Warren Buffett, was given the Chairman’s Award for his philanthropic work and his efforts to preserve biodiversity in underdeveloped countries. “The reason this is so special to me is that it’s not just an award,” said Buffett. He said he shares it with “all the people who have worked with us from National Geographic. Great partners. That’s what National Geographic is—it’s a big family around the world.”
Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek, who glowed with a nice California tan and in his summer white dinner jacket, won the Alexander Graham Bell Medal. “Obviously I did not get the memo on the proper jacket to wear tonight,” he joked, but it didn’t matter. He looked just fine. In his remarks he emphasized the importance of teaching science to young people. “If the kids work it out right, our planet’s future is in good shape,” he said.
One of the world’s leading scientists, and a Harvard professor, Edward O. Wilson was one of three recipients of the Hubbard Medal. He chided any of his students who might be in the room, warning that there would be a quiz about his remarks. Wilson was followed by ocean explorer Sylvia A. Earle, who said being a scientist means never having to grow up. “I’m in great company tonight with a lot of kids,” she said. She gave a passionate tribute to her profession and made a sort of call to arms on the room’s responsibility to save the planet. “This is a time we can refer to as sweet,” she said. “We are empowered with knowledge. If we delay another 50 years it will be too late. We are in the moment of getting it right.”
The third recipient of the Hubbard Medal was a man making an encore appearance as an honoree—Titanic and Avatar director James Cameron, who made history last year with a dive to the deepest place in the ocean. He was honored a couple of years ago as a new explorer in residence. At the time, humbled, Cameron said he was “not worthy” of the honor, but he has embraced and blended in well with the Nat Geo family and culture. At the earlier dinner he made this revealing remark: “Everybody knows me as this Hollywood guy, but that’s not who I am. My heroes were explorers. It’s a pathology, an insane curiosity, and such an exciting mission. It feeds my soul in a way that none of the Hollywood stuff can do.”
Cameron was just as quotable this year. He said winning the award was “the fulfillment of a dream.” He also talked about an “epiphany” he had experienced in the last year. He said that he knew he was in a room “full of people who understand and feel a strong kinship” and who have a “strong sense of protectiveness” for the environment. Cameron, who was also named Explorer of the Year, said “I want to challenge you people of conscience. There’s one thing you can do, changing what is on the end of your fork. By changing what you eat, you will change the entire contract with the other species of the world. My wife and I went vegan a year ago. I feel like I was awakened from a long sleepwalk.”
Moments after Cameron finished his vegan plea and left the stage, waiters swarmed the room with the entree: roast filet of farm-raised bison. We presume that’s not what Cameron and his wife, Suzy Amis, were served.
Even with the star wattage of Trebek and Cameron, the person who people talked about the most was Felix Baumgartner, who was named Adventurer of the Year. Last October Baumgartner, at a speed of 844 miles-per-hour, jumped to earth from a capsule that was 127,852.4 feet in the air. The Austrian skydiver, who posed with everyone who asked for a picture, is land-bound only as a second choice. “The air is where I am at home,” he said.