Certainly the institute founded by Dr. Kenneth (“The Father of Aerobics”) Cooper has attained excellence since its establishment in Dallas in 1970. The event recognized the 30th anniversary of Fitnessgram–the nation’s most respected fitness-assessment tool–and its founder, Dr. Charles Sterling.
It also honored the Perot International Youth Data Center, which has earned prominence tracking health-related information on children worldwide. And keynote speaker Nando Parrado, who survived a fatal plane crash in the Andes mountains 40 years ago, explained how the key to surviving that crash was “achieving excellence” (without actually knowing it at the time), plus a good measure of luck.
The 500 guests were primed to celebrate these pinnacles of achievement from the get-go. At the crowded, pre-dinner reception, Dr. Cooper chatted with Troy Aikman, the evening’s honorary chairman, while Nancy Dedman stopped Ross Perot in his tracks. “Are you going to make a speech?” Nancy asked him. “Yes,” Ross answered teasingly. “But, it won’t be more than an hour or two long.”
Lyda Hill breezed through in one of her trademark orange outfits. Jody Grant was talking intently with Dr. Gerald Turner, not far from the socializing Toni Brinker, Caroline Rose Hunt, Ramona Jones and Billie Leigh Rippey. (“I was Dr. Cooper’s second patient,” Billie Leigh was saying.) Meantime event Co-chair Barb Durham was huddled with Co-chairs Pam Denesuk and Carol Seay, who was asked whether the evening had met its fundraising goal. “Oh, hell yes,” Carol replied. “Well over it!”
Following a meal of salad (lettuce, toasted walnuts and honey-roasted pears); roasted chicken with fingerling potatoes, haricot verts and carrots; and chocolate molten cake, Dr. Cooper took to the stage to praise Perot—“the most disciplined man I know”—and his $2 million contribution for the data center. The center’s international data currently includes children from India, Korea, Norway, Bulgaria, Haiti, Canada, and China, which is using a Chinese version of FitnessGram.
It was the Chinese data that Perot focused on during his brief talk, calling the focus “the most beneficial thing we can do to improve relations” between the U.S. and China. Educated Chinese people can recognize 8,000 different characters, Perot said, while “I do 26 letters and 10 numbers, and I’m wiped out! … We don’t want the Chinese as an enemy.”
After leading a rousing, British-style “three cheers” for Dr. Sterling and other scientists attending the dinner, Perot gave way to keynoter Parrado, who’d been inspired by Ken Follett’s book “On Wings of Eagles,” which recounted Perot’s role in rescuing two EDS employees held as hostages in Iran. The keynoter also credited Dr. Cooper for Parrado’s ability to survive the Andes crash because, as a player on the Uruguayan national rugby team, he and the team had used Dr. Cooper’s fitness tenets to train.
In an overlong but gripping presentation, Parrado described in dramatic detail the harrowing crash and how he and 15 of teammates, who’d never even seen snow before, survived 72 bitterly cold days and nights in the high mountains, until their eventual rescue. Among the key points he made:
–The crash of the airplane carrying 45 passengers happened because the plane’s pilot made a mistake, “just like lawyers” and other professionals make mistakes.
–The rugby team captain quickly took charge, helping construct a “wall” for shelter and bucking up everyone’s spirits.
–After a few days the survivors had no food nor water—they ate snow and ice instead—and knew after 10 days that the search for them had been called off. (One of the party had found a transistor radio.) With no gloves, hats, or other cold-weather gear the nights were like “sleeping in a refrigerator,” and the only heat they had was “the breath of the guy on top of you.”
–All they had to eat was “the dead bodies of our friends.” If that shocked the audience, Parrado said, “Humans get used to horror very easily. … That’s hell … [but] you have to peel away the veneer of civilization to survive.” He likened the cannibalism to “donating organs. … We were the most advanced donors in history.”
–After an avalanche killed still more of the crash survivors, Parrado and two others decided to try to hike for help. (One of them would soon return to the crash site.) “We couldn’t stop, or we would die,” he said. Once it took them 14 hours to climb 40 yards. After walking some 70 miles and reaching three “false” summits, on the eighth day of their trek they were spotted by a man on horseback, who eventually summoned helicopters for the rescue of the 14 survivors they’d left behind.
The information “I will give you tonight will allow you to think in a different way,” Parrado had said when his talk began, challenging the audience. “How would you have reacted” in such a situation?
Talk about illuminating new perspectives.
Photo credit: Holt Haynsworth