The National Geographic Society is more than an investment for Howard Buffett, a director of Berkshire Hathaway Inc.
At last night’s gala celebrating the society’s 125th anniversary, he said his daughter, Chelsea, won a society-sponsored competition in high school that led to an internship and a job at the organization, which in turn led to meeting her husband, who creates maps there.
It’s “a family affair,” said Buffett, who accepted the Chairman’s Award for his partnership with the society. Buffett has provided funding for field work and cheetah-preservation projects, and for underwriting an issue of National Geographic Magazine dedicated to water. (His father, Warren Buffett, is chairman and chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway.)
Film director James Cameron received a Hubbard Medal, the society’s highest honor, and the Explorer of the Year Award for making the first single-pilot dive to the Challenger Deep, the deepest point underwater.
A long time environmental advocate, Cameron challenged the crowd to do what he did recently: adopt a vegan diet. “Changing what you eat,” he said, is the best way to live a greener life.
Could he ever give up alcohol? Certainly not, he said. “I’m an explorer.”
Author and scientist Edward O. Wilson, and oceanographer Sylvia Earle were the other two Hubbard Medal recipients, named after the society’s first president.
Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner was named Adventurer of the Year for jumping from a capsule 24 miles above Earth last year, reaching speeds during his fall of 844 miles an hour.
The gala’s cocktail reception at the National Building Museum featured “ocean blue cocktails.” “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek relaxed on a sofa, surveying the crowd.
Wearing a dapper white dinner jacket, he joked that he “looked like a waiter. Four people have asked me for drinks.”
He received the society’s Alexander Graham Bell Medal for his 25-year stint hosting the National Geographic Society Bee. He said geography has been a passion of his since childhood, because it’s a subject that “encompasses all knowledge.”
Trebek announced $1 million gift to the society to ensure that the bee will continue.
Among the other top donors present were Steve Case, the chairman of Revolution LLC, one of many supporters who have given a million dollars or more this year, helping the society bring in close to $35 million for its anniversary campaign.
T. Boone Pickens, Jr., the chairman and founder of BP Capital LLC, attended with his new girlfriend, Toni Brinker, who said she’ll be joining the society’s council at the end of the year. Also seated at his table was his grandson, an anthropology major.
By the bar, Case caught up with Robert Ballard, the underwater archaeologist who discovered the Titanic wreckage in 1985. Ballard said he’s embarking soon on a two-year exploration of the Caribbean for pirate loot and other treasures.
The museum’s mammoth walls turned into video screens showing footage of cheetahs leaping, amphibians hopping, and hammerheads swarming.
The three-course meal reflected the society’s explorations on sea, land and air. Guests started with chilled lobster-tail medallions, followed by roast of farm-raised bison filet and finished with Pavlova.
The gala ended with a champagne toast and musicians playing the National Geographic theme song.
(Stephanie Green is a writer and photographer for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are her own.)
Muse highlights include Lance Esplund on art, Lewis Lapham on books.