Chicagoans Shine at the Al Smith Dinner



By Judy Carmack Bross




Chicagoans Lynne McDonough, left, Sabrina Gracias, Julie Harron, and Kelly McKenna, with William Cappelletti and Brennan Moore


“As a proud Chicagoan, educated at St. Faith, Hope, & Charity and Woodland Academy of the Sacred Heart, I can remember vividly our entire Callahan family visiting Cardinal Bernadin, led by my grandmother (Mary “Izzy” Henebry) and my cousin (Bishop George Rassas). Those visits had a very important impression on me and have stayed with me as I moved to New York City and became involved with the Archdioceses of New York, led by His Eminence, Timothy Cardinal Dolan. I have been proudly donating my time to help lead the Alfred E. Smith Foundation Board and annual dinner – and one of the best parts of the iconic white tie celebration is look out from the dais and see so many Chicagoans over the years, from the McKenna family, Greg Brown’s family, Monsignor Ken Velo, Julie Harron, Sabrina Gracias, and my family – Philip Erdoes, Patsy/Pat Callahan, and many of the Dwyer family too. But as Peggy Noonan pointed out in her Wall Street Journal piece, the most moving part of the evening was when the sea of Catholic supporters was given a blue lapel button supporting anti-antisemitism, and enthusiastically put them on in a show of solidarity – it made me very proud of the night.”

– Mary Callahan Erdoes, CEO, J.P. Morgan Asset & Wealth Management



Former Chicagoans Mary Callahan Erdoes and Kelly McKenna played leading roles in New York’s most iconic and celebrity packed occasion, the recent Al Smith Dinner, keynoted this year by 100-year-old Henry Kissinger. His address to the 945 bipartisan dinner guests, including several Chicagoans, lived up to the tradition of a mirth-filled evening which went beyond goal, raising $7 million for women and children’s services.


Henry Kissinger with Cardinal Dolan.


Erdoes, CEO of JP Morgan Asset Management and Board Chair of the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation with His Eminence, Timothy Michael Cardinal Dolan, co-chaired the evening and Foundation Board member Kelly McKenna, Director at Cliffwater, an All American sailor, and granddaughter of the late Chicago civic leader Andrew McKenna, the only person to have chaired both the White Sox and the Cubs, welcomed Chicago guests, including family members.


Bill and Molly McKenna, their daughter Kelly McKenna and sister Laura McKenna Mullins and husband Ryan Mullins, all Chicagoans except Ryan.


Chicago’s Mary Callahan Erdoes, Co-host with Cardinal Dolan, of the recent Al Smith Dinner in New York.


Among Chicagoans present was Chicago and Florida real estate executive Julie Harron who attended the Lake Forest high school Woodlands Academy with Mary Callahan Erdoes and is a close friend of Kelly McKenna.


Julie Harron with Luis Cerna


Chicago participation went beyond those who traveled to New York to attend in person: a number of other Chicagoans and Chicago businesses supported the dinner financially. Begun in 1945, the dinner honors the memory of Al Smith, a four-time Governor of New York who was the first Catholic to run for President from any major party. First called “The Happy Warrior” by Franklin Roosevelt at the 1924 Democratic Convention, Smith was born in poverty, starting work at age 14 in a fish market, and in his political career did much to put labor laws into effect to aid women and children following a 1911 sweatshop fire.


McKenna, who joined the board of the Foundation board this year  told us how proud her grandfather was to learn she would be on that board before he died in February. She shared more about the dinner:


“When I first attended the Al Smith Dinner I was astounded by the presence of so many influential leaders across party lines, religious affiliations, and spheres of influence in one room in support of a common cause, supporting services to New York City’s neediest women and children. I came away highly inspired do whatever I could to help the Foundation expand its impact locally as well as nationally.


Because the Waldorf, the usual site for the event, is under construction, this year’s Al Smith Dinner packed the Park Avenue Armory.


“Since 1960 the white-tie evening has had the tradition during Presidential election years that the two leading candidates keynote. It is the last time the candidates appear together before the election. It has become a jest-filled ritual of American politics.


Former New York Governor George Pataki, left,  Mary Callahan Erdoes, Julie Harron, Cardinal Dolan, Kelly McKenna, Sabrina Gracias, Lynne McDonough, and William Cappelletti.


“The dinner showcases what is possible for communities that choose to collaborate across political, religious, and other divides. The Foundation raises funds for various charities under the purview of the New York Archdiocese. prioritizing education, health and family services. In a testament to the dinner’s impact and recognition, it is even the subject of a West Wing episode.


“This year’s anchor fundraiser and guest of honor was Rob Speyer, CEO of the real estate company Tishman Speyer, given the title of Happy Warrior for the evening as is done each year. Some past non-presidential year keynoter speakers include: Winston Churchill, Tom Brokaw, Stephen Colbert, Mike Bloomberg, Stephen Schwarzman, and Condoleezza Rice.”


From left, Julie Harron, Veronica Cervera Goeseke and Lynne McDonough at the Al Smith Dinner.


Al Smith, named the Happy Warrior by Franklin Roosevelt who was a delegate to the 1924 Democratic convention.


Smith was greatly respected at a time when distrust of Catholics was widespread in the United States. He made a career in spite of prejudice, becoming a strong symbol of religious freedom. He battled for slum clearance, set up children’s courts, and fought to increase teachers’ salaries. He wanted people to enjoy themselves so he took the ban off Sunday baseball. A meticulous dresser, there was always a knife-edged crease in his trousers, his shoes shone and he carried six handkerchiefs. He was quoted as saying: “I feel spiffy when I’m dressed just right.”


When Smith died in 1944, 200,000 people paid their respects to him while his body was lying in state, and 7,000 more attended the funeral the next day, with 35,000 waiting in the streets outside. Smith quit politics in 1936, and went on to be Honorary Curator of the Bronx Zoo, president of the Empire State Building and director of multiple corporations.


In a Wall Street Journal piece following the dinner, Peggy Noonan wrote:


“I was with a peaceable group the other night at the Al Smith dinner, the big annual bipartisan dinner of the Catholic Archdiocese of New York. One of the speakers, Mary Erdoes, told the audience that anti-Semitism appears to be on the rise and our friends need to know who’s with them. There was an envelope at each plate, she said, and if you open it you’ll find a blue lapel button. Wearing it is meant to show identification and affiliation with our brothers and sisters. Suddenly at that madly noisy dinner, all you could hear was one sound, envelopes being torn open, and the sight of buttons being affixed.

“It was a great moment of making it clear.”


Laura McKenna, Kelly McKenna and McKenzie Crowe.


McKenna, who grew up in Chicago and then moved to Palo Alto, told us:


“New Yorkers care deeply about their city and making sure everyone is taken care of. Together they contribute resources, passion, awareness, and solutions. The Archdiocese of New York has done a terrific job over the years of working with and supporting the broader community, regardless of religion. Happy Warrior Rob Speyer, who is Jewish, discussed his close relationship with Cardinal Dolan in his speech at this year’s dinner, emphasizing how much he looks to His Eminence for advice and mentorship. A number of honorary guests at the dinner also mentioned what an outstanding leader Cardinal Dolan in particular has been for the Archdiocese, specifically in terms of building cross-religion and cross-partisan relationships and being a hands-on civic leader for the city. Much like Dr. Kissinger, Cardinal Dolan is a diplomat and visionary leader!”


To learn more about the Al Smith Dinner, visit: