Among the masterpieces in Hungary

Writer recalls visit with Nancy Brinker as Southport Galleries showcase artwork

Opening night of “Art as Ambassador: Hungarian Masterpieces from the Nancy G. Brinker and Christian L. Sauska Collections” at Southport Galleries. (Photo Courtesy Christopher Ball)

Opening night of “Art as Ambassador: Hungarian Masterpieces from the Nancy G. Brinker and Christian L. Sauska Collections” at Southport Galleries. (Photo Courtesy Christopher Ball)

After spending 34 years teaching high school English, you can imagine how excited I was to be asked to accompany Ambassador Nancy Brinker, CEO of Komen for the Cure, to Hungary, where she was going to purchase more Hungarian art for her renowned collection in an attempt to help the artists reach broader audiences here in America.

Works from the collections of Brinker and Christian L. Sauska are on display in “Hungarian Masterpieces” at Southport Galleries, 330 Pequot Ave. The show, offered in partnership with Quinnipiac University Central European Institute, continues through Saturday, Oct. 19, and is part of the Pequot Library Art Show Gallery Walk.

My invitation to accompany Brinker was due in part to the fact that I am married to a Hungarian who is active in the Hungarian-American community, and he valued this chance to meet Hungarian artists he was not familiar with prior to this trip. I relished every moment of being near Brinker for almost two weeks to learn from her, to watch her share her vast knowledge of art history and Hungarian culture and to utterly enjoy her wry sense of humor.

This amazing woman has become a role model for many women, and role models are important to help us become the people we want to be, inspire us to make a difference and influence us correctly. But, as Bonnie Erbe, host of “To The Contrary” on PBS, said, “Lots of famous people can be role models, but few of them are leaders. They’re the ones who’ve dedicated their lives to making the world a better place.” And that’s why I categorize Brinker as more than a celebrity or a role model; she’s a true leader because she’s invested her life in saving others.

After graduating from college at the University of Illinois, she entered the executive training program at Neiman Marcus in Dallas. Granted, she eventually married the famous restaurateur, Norman Brinker, but on her own, she achieved greatness in myriad positions: U.S. Chief of Protocol from 2007 until the end of Bush’s administration, during which she was the first to greet Pope Benedict XVI when he visited the U.S. in 2008; she was U.S. Ambassador to Hungary from 2001 to 2003; Time magazine named her one of the most influential people in the world in 2008; in 2009, she was the Goodwill Ambassador for cancer control at the U.N. World Health Organization in order to carry her efforts to battle cancer to 50 countries.

President Obama awarded Brinker the Presidential Medal of Freedom; she wrote her best-selling autobiography, Promise Me; and now, she heads the Cure Global Health Alliance, an international mission, because Komen for the Cure is the world’s largest grassroots network of breast cancer survivors and advocates.

In addition to being a devoted mother and caring daughter, she is a cancer survivor herself. Under her leadership, Komen for the Cure has invested more than $1.9 billion for research, education and health since 1982. She changed the vocabulary of cancer from “victim” to “survivor,” and turned her philanthropy into a household brand by bathing the White House and the Egyptian pyramids in the soft glow of pink in order to raise awareness.

But dear to my husband’s heart is the impact she made on Hungary during her tenure as ambassador and the contribution she made to that country in promoting Hungarian artists. Andras Simonyi, Hungary’s ambassador to the U.S., attests to her achievements.

He wrote in his book, Csucsrajarata (Walking on the Summit), “Brinker has so much dignity and style in the way she behaved, which are usually the traits of daughters of aristocrats-elegant, beautiful, kind and very refined. She has a very keen eye for politics, far better than is common in the diplomatic community. The real source of Nancy’s influence comes from her persuasive powers, her perseverance, and the foundation she set up to combat breast cancer. There is a tiger behind all that beauty.”

Residents of Budapest remember her Komen walks across the Szechenyi Bridge and outing the term “breast cancer” when locals still labeled it “women’s cancer.”

Last year, in the Washington Post’s leadership forum video, she gave the following advice and shared her own key to success which has served her well for so long, “You’ve got to get up every day, throw your legs over the side of the bed and practice your passion.” For her, that passion is promoting Hungarian art, defeating breast cancer and continuing her leadership role in America.

For me, it’s watching and learning even more from her about caring for others, looking good, learning new material, staying humble, keeping my sense of humor, showing others how much I value them, and rebounding from defeat.

So why did I write this? Because my horoscope on my 70th birthday read: “You know all those glamorous, charismatic visionaries you admire?

Well, you’re becoming more like them every day. Keep moving in the direction of your idols, and you’ll soon achieve a measure of success that has personal significance.”

I can only wish…

Lessons from Nancy Brinker

1. Always look your best because the image you project to others embodies your message.

No wonder during our art trip to Hungary, Ambassador Brinker looked her best each day as she not only carried her Komen message, but her reputation as a former U.S. State Department official and promoter of fine art.

2. Demonstrate your intense concern for people’s welfare.

Wherever we went throughout Budapest and surrounding areas, former personnel and staff who served in the embassy during her 2001-2003 tenure as ambassador went to see her, took her flowers and expressed an interest in her life since she left the post. In every case, whether it was the embassy’s cook, gardener, driver or cleaning lady, she seated them beside her at lunch or dinner, caught up on their lives and asked each about a family member, calling that person by name. I saw then that she just didn’t care about those who are rich, famous, or could further her Komen cause; she had made those in supporting roles part of her sphere.

She taught her handsome son, Eric, as well. An affable businessman who accompanied his mother on this trip, Eric was so gracious. On more than one occasion, as I sat next to him, he told me of the impact of his mother’s work and even inquired about my past experiences in the classroom. I found it amazing that both mother and son showed such interest in others, so no wonder, thousands of women walk for the cure, give money to the cause, and adore Brinker’s “face for the cure.”

3. Be mission-driven.

Care about a cause so deeply that you’ll be remembered for it above all else. Anita McBride, Laura Bush’s former Chief of Staff, said of the Ambassador, “When I think of Nancy Brinker, I think of one woman who changed the world.” What finer accolade could one hope to attain?

4. Learn all you can about a subject.

Other than breast cancer research’s latest developments, Ambassador Brinker’s passion is for Hungarian art, so much so that as part of her cultural diplomacy, she exhibited some of her art collection in the gallery of the Federal Reserve Board, Washington, D.C. In 2008, the Phoenix Art Museum exhibited “Art for the Cure: Hungarian Modernism from the Nancy G. Brinker Collection” made up of names like Pal Szinyei Merse, Janos Vaszary, Bela Kadar, Bela Czobel, Andre Kertesz, Lajos Vajda, and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy.

When I asked Ambassador Brinker to name her favorite work, she admitted that it was Janos Vaszary’s 1905 portrait of Countess Ilona Batthyany, a Hungarian woman born into the aristocracy who supported and celebrated the arts. She explains, ‘The over-riding feature in the portrait is the darkness of the background as the Countess sits in her library. The look on her face captivated me because her expression holds fear of the coming years but in the midst of that is the feeling that something else more positive will happen. Batthyany, too, was a supporter of women’s health causes, and her face says, ‘I’ve seen it all,’ but her countenance holds the wisdom of her years. In many ways, this painting reminds me of my own mother, and I never view it without thinking of her optimism oftentimes in the face of insurmountable odds.” In 2009, this exhibit was moved to the Forbes Galleries in New York City. At that opening, Hungarian Ambassador Ferenc Somogyi stated, “On behalf of 10 million Hungarians, we express our gratitude and have made her an honorary lifetime Hungarian,” evidence that Ambassador Brinker knows her material well. She admitted, “As long as anyone wants to see these works, we’ll take them to the people. My son, Eric, tells me that since I’m from Peoria, Ill., that if this show ‘plays well in Peoria, it’ll play anywhere’.” And after traveling to more than four exhibit openings, I can personally attest to the fact that her art shows play extremely well wherever they are displayed.

5. Humility is truly a virtue. I remember sitting next to Ambassador Brinker at lunch one day in Hungary and being terribly curious to see the Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded her by President Obama, I asked if she had it with her on the trip. She looked at me with surprise and replied that it was in a drawer at home because, as she said, “The focus should always be on Susan G. Komen, and not on me.” I then saw that underneath that “steely force” that some people describe her as having, there is a humble women who’s experienced her own sense of sadness and loss but still remembers her Midwestern roots as evidenced in her book Promise Me. She knows that after all the honors and accolades, she really belongs to a “sisterhood.”

6. Reciprocity is vital to success. Ambassador Brinker is truly generous and appreciative in ways that go beyond simple gestures. Two examples: first, when Hungary experienced severe flooding and then a horrible scourge of “red tide,” a chemical spill from an aluminum processing plant that poisoned the soil and countryside, Ambassador Brinker gave generously to relief efforts. Secondly, this spring when my husband won the Jacob Burns law school alumni award from George Washington University for his contributions to the school, imagine the law school dean’s surprise when he received a generous donation from Ambassador Brinker who could not attend but wanted to honor my husband that evening in her own generous way.

7. Rebound from adversity.

Most know of Komen’s Planned Parenthood funding controversy and Brinker’s relinquishment of Komen’s CEO position, but in typical Brinker fashion, she has rebounded to plan a new art opening, discuss another global initiative for the Cure, and consider another way to impact the lives of millions of women, probably not even realizing how much she’s impacted mine.

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