The valet lineup at Newport Beach's tony Cannery restaurant was unusually busy for a Tuesday night in February. The armada of black Benzes, BMWs and Bentleys flowed out of the parking lot up and around to Via Lido.
Gary Sinise, actor and star of the TV drama "CSI: NY" and advocate for the men and women serving in the U.S. military, arrived in town for a Feb. 18 dinner fundraiser that local organizers were labeling an "Inspiration to Action." Funds raised will benefit the Gary Sinise Foundation.
Chaired by an executive committee made up of Sally and Randy Crockett, Margaret and Tom Larkin and the Cannery's Ron and Darlene Salisbury, the venue offered limited seating in the dining room's bayfront terrace. Tables of 10 were sold for $10,000, and they were sold out in a matter of hours.
The terrace was packed with citizens who march to the Sinise drum beat. The social crowd, generally loud and lively at charity dinners, was humble and attentive. Guest master of ceremonies comedian Tom Dreesen made note of the conservative temperature in the audience, opening with a joke: He had just been in church that morning at Our Lady of the Right to Bear Arms parish. The crowd roared.
Politics aside, it was a night of serious business, that of helping America's wounded vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Delivering the message with clarity and optimism was Cpl. Juan Dominguez, Purple Heart recipient, Gary Sinise Foundation ambassador and Marine who on Oct. 23, 2010, stepped on an improvised explosive devise, a pressure-plated plastic jug, losing both legs and his right arm. During the past three years, Dominguez has endured some 24 surgeries.
The young man, just 30 years old, came to Newport to share his story, but more significantly to serve as a messenger of hope, defiance and courage, letting Americans know exactly what is the cost of their freedom. Freedom that enables those fortunate enough to wait in their fancy cars at valet lines and dine on lobster salad and filet mignon on a tented patio fronting a lovely harbor filled with pleasure boats.
The Newport donors got the message loud and clear. Supporting the cause were Deborah and Larry Bridges, Laura Lee and Dick Browne, Kingsley and Jack Croul, Jack and Ann Davis, Laura Khouri and Michael Hayde, and Lynn and Mike Joseph. Also front and center for Sinise were Newport's philanthropic Sandi and Ron Simon, Linda and Robert Yellin, Judy and Tom McKernan, Amy and Craig Nickoloff, and Ginny and Peter Ueberroth.
Special guests in the dining crowd included Leslie and Larry Cancellieri, Ronnie and Byron Allumbaugh, Carol and Kent Wilken, Kelly and Chad Smith and community activist Eve Kornyei Ruffatto, who was named gala co-chairwoman of 2013 for her work with Valarie Van Cleave Whiting chairing the enormous Oceana SeaChange summer event on the coast.
Other VIPs supporting Sinise included Stephanie and Tim Busch, Tracy and Roger Kirwan, Dee and Larry Higby, and Barbara and Alex Bowie. Tenor Steve Amerson entertained the dinner crowd, preceding the presentation of a Sinise Foundation video explaining the mission.
Sinise closed the evening with passionate remarks. "This is not a part-time job," he said. "I am a fortunate man, and my work on 'CSI: NY' has allowed me to devote myself to supporting our nation's defenders. This has been my true life's work.
"I am continually inspired by the remarkable people I meet along this journey. There is always more to be done."
The Newport celebration made note of the completion of a "smart home" built in Temecula for Dominguez. The state-of-the-art residence built to allow a triple amputee a degree of independent mobility cost a reported $750,000, all donated funds from citizens attending fundraisers like Tuesday night's.
Three additional homes are under construction in the region for veterans requiring assistance.
THE CROWD runs Fridays. B.W. Cook is editor of the Bay Window, the official publication of the Balboa Bay Club in Newport Beach.