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June, 2000

Sky High Challenge
By George Takei

LOS ANGELES - It was a proud moment for all of us at the Japanese American National Museum when we received word that we had been selected as a recipient of a $1.5 million challenge grant from the Ford Foundation. This was not only solid recognition from a distinguished philanthropic foundation for the achievements of a relatively young museum in telling the uniquely American story of the Japanese American experience. This was significant financial support for our still developing endowment. We were delighted.

As a challenge grant, however, we knew that we would have work to do. We had to match the gift two to one. Our challenge was to raise $3 million in three years. I had no idea, though, of a capricious and nerve-racking challenge that I would be facing as well.

As chairman of the national museum, I was to fly to New York, where the Ford Foundation was to present the gift at a dinner. I was to be a speaker on the program together with famed opera star, Beverly Sills, who also happens to be the chairman of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. I had always admired Ms. Sills' artistry as well as her private commitment to the arts. To meet her and share the stage with her would be a wonderful personal occasion for me as well.

On the day of the dinner, I caught an early morning American Airlines flight at LAX that was to connect through Chicago. It would get me into Manhattan with time enough to check into the hotel, get dressed and be at the Ford Foundation Building in time for the dinner. The flight was uneventful -- which was good. I have had more than my share of "eventful" flights in my life. We landed at O'Hare Airport in Chicago on schedule, but, as I stepped out of the jetway, an airline representative was there to meet me. He apologetically told me that my connecting flight to New York had been cancelled due to a bad storm between Chicago and New York. But, he assured me, he had booked me on the next flight to New York only an hour later.

I realized that I would have to adjust to the changed circumstances. To make up for the lost time, I thought I had better be dressed for the dinner. So, I got to the Admiral's Club, unpacked as best I could within the confines of a cubicle and struggled out of my casual clothes and into my suit and tie. Dressed and ready for the dinner, I stepped out of the men's room.

As I walked by the flight schedule monitor screen, I gave a quick glance to check on my new connecting flight. CANCELLED, it read. My new connection, too, had been aborted. Trying to suppress my alarm, I got in line at the service desk together with a horde of panic-stricken passengers. The harried reservation clerks announced that the storm had forced the cancellation of all flights going east but that they were working on getting us back in the air as soon as possible. The sky in Chicago looked fine, but I wasn't so sure I wanted to get back up into that sky.

I took up residence in the Admiral's Club for the next six hours waiting anxiously for a break in the storm. Periodically, the airline reps announced that they would, at last, be able to book us on a flight. And just as quickly, they reversed themselves. When they finally told me that they could get me into New York by 2 p.m. the following day, I realized that I had failed this part of the challenge grant. It was pointless for me to go on. Our museum's executive director, Irene Hirano, had flown the day before and she could accept the gift from the Ford Foundation. I took the next flight going west through calm skies and returned home to Los Angeles.

That was two weeks ago. Last weekend, I flew again, this time to a Star Trek convention in Tampa, Florida, the annual Vulcon show organized by Joe Motes and Fernando Martinez. Thankfully, the flight was uneventful. This month, I have trips to San Francisco, then Tokyo, Japan, and Toronto, Canada. The challenges continue to be scheduled.



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