CRANBERRY TWP — Thursday night was supposed to be a celebration of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee as he received the Hance Award during the St. Barnabas Charities Founder's Day Dinner.
Instead, the charismatic 2008 Republican presidential candidate turned the spotlight on the volunteers, employees and donors who support St. Barnabas Health System and St. Barnabas Charities.
Huckabee repeatedly heaped praise on the supporters of St. Barnabas, describing their noble efforts to provide not only monetary donations, but also care with dignity and respect to the community members who were most in need of aid.
“In many ways, the investment you make in St. Barnabas will change someone's life,” Huckabee told the crowd of more than 400 people at the Marriott Pittsburgh North. “There are a lot of things that you can give money to that don't have great returns. Tonight, you can see the good you do.”
In a lengthy speech to the organizations' supporters that ended just shy of 10 p.m., Huckabee skipped political topics for the most part and instead focused on his respect for Pittsburgh's revival as a city, his life growing up in a poor, rural family in Arkansas, his beliefs on the American ideal and why giving to others is so important.
He also took time to join the band on stage and strum a tune on bass guitar. Before the dinner and awards ceremony, Huckabee spent several hours mingling with attendees, taking photographs and talking to people.
He also spent time with 91-year-old World War II veteran Leonard Wishtart, who lives at St. Barnabas.
Huckabee was in the township to receive the Hance Award, which is named after the St. Barnabas founder, Gouverneur Provoost Hance, who began the organization in 1900. Past winners have included politician Newt Gingrich, astronaut “Buzz” Aldrin, President Gerald Ford, and NFL Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw.
The Founder's Day Dinner raises funds for the St. Barnabas Charities Free Care Fund, which has generated more than $100 million in donations in the past century.
John J. Curran, chairman of the St. Barnabas Health System board, thanked the organization's volunteers, donors and employees before introducing Huckabee.
“We simply could not function without our volunteers,” Curran said. “It's a privilege to see the work of our professional staff.”
After several other speakers addressed the audience, Huckabee took the stage to a standing ovation and immediately expressed his admiration for Pittsburgh and its residents, describing how the city was transformed from a “Rust Belt city into a Renewal Belt city.”
“It's a great thrill for me to be here. Pittsburgh, to me, is one of the most remarkable cities in America,” he said. “Pittsburgh had been written off by so many, except the residents.”
Huckabee weaved stories of his childhood, religious faith and political career with messages about the importance of giving and keeping the American ideal alive. Although considered by some pundits as a possible 2016 presidential nominee, Huckabee rarely touched on political topics.
Stories of his family background — poor, uneducated and working class — and his rise to governor of Arkansas and presidential nominee through hard work, a good upbringing and because he lives in America dominated his speech.
“I was one generation away from dirt floors, no electricity, no indoor plumbing,” Huckabee said. “Upstream from me, there is no male in my family lineage who finished high school. My father knew one thing: hard work and heavy lifting.”
Obtaining a job at a radio station when he was 14 years old, Huckabee said, was the key to him rising from rural poverty to get a college education and to chase his dreams.
He described how he worked as a disc jockey, covered local sports, read the weather and mopped the floors to save money for college. Because he didn't have much savings, he said, he finished college in only two years and three months because he couldn't afford to attend any longer.
“I have an education because I have a job,” he said. “The only reason I was able to do that is because I live in the greatest country on God's green earth, the United States of America. It doesn't matter where you come from, but where you want to go.”
He finished the evening recalling an incident from when he was governor and he read a book to a first grade class. A young girl interrupted him and said she wanted to go to lunch and eat corn dogs.
Huckabee said the lesson he learned from the encounter was that he wished the only thing first graders had to worry about was whether or not they got a hot corndog at lunch, not all the problems facing the country.
“First graders ought not to have to worry about the unemployment rate. First graders ought not to have to worry about health care,” he said. “I wish they didn't have to worry about Syria or Ukraine.”