Tuesday, May 18, 2010

“Chicks In Chinos” Rule

Milbry Polk and Uma Thurman at WINGS “Women of Discovery” awards dinner.
“Chicks In Chinos” Rule
by Ned Brown


My story is about a wonderful evening of celebration for women explorers, WINGS WorldQuest, and its founder, Milbry Polk. Before, there is a brief subtext about how the world keeps getting smaller as we get older. I figure in another twenty years, I will encounter all of my dispersed worldwide friends at least once each year in one of the handful of locales.

Entering the WINGS WorldQuest honorary dinner, I bumped into my old schoolmate and former school foundation board member, Arphad “Arki” Busson, successful hedge fund manager, philanthropist, and all around “guy’s guy.” Love Arki, he stays in great shape, looks terrific in his tailored black suit and designer sneakers. A top accolade for Arki is, for my eyes, his exceptional taste in women. First there was Elle Macpherson, with whom he had two children, and now he’s with Uma Thurman; although some press reports have their engagement as being “off”- whatever. Uma was the Honorary Chair of this year’s WINGs “Women of Discovery” awards dinner, and she did a terrific job leading the evening. Uma has put her heart into to this small group of women explorers who get little recognition.
Back row: Nina Jablonski, Naomi Pierce, Andrea Polli, Jill Tarter, Diana Beresford-Kroeger, AImee Morgana, Rosemarie Keough (2010 Wings Fellows). Front row: Kate Harris, Susan Dudley, Milbry Polk, Carol Beckwith, Angela Fisher.
2010 Wings Fellows.
Next, another schoolmate, Lisa Woodward, widow of schoolmate and friend, William Woodward III of the Hanover Bank Woodwards, the family subject of Dominick Dunne’s, The Two Mrs. Grenvilles. I was an usher at Woody’s funeral, adore Lisa, and will always keep a watchful eye over their daughter, Elizabeth. Lisa splits her time between homes in New York, Paris, Gstaad, and her jewel-like summer home in Spetsis, Greece. Elizabeth Woodward interned last spring with WINGS.

Milbry Polk, mother, wife, explorer, author, and founder of WINGs WorldQuest, then walked up to chat. I first met Milbry several years ago through her Chadds Ford- based cousin, Elizabeth “Biz” Carey. Biz is part of the Philadelphia Main Line Carey’s, principal owners of W.P.Carey & Company, a major commercial NYSE-listed real estate investment company. Milbry’s father, Bill Polk, is a recognized authority, writer and lecturer on Middle Eastern politics and culture, who splits his time between homes in Dallas, TX and Vence, France. I hope to visit Bill Polk in June for another NYSD story. During the course of my conversation with Milbry, I learned that she attended a small girls’ school, La Combe, which has now been assimilated into my former Swiss boarding school, Le Rosey. So to my earlier point, the world gets increasingly smaller.
Angela Fisher, David Koch, and Carol Beckwith.
Mike Dimartino, Uma Thurman, and Tobey Nemser.
I will tell you flat out that Milbry Polk is phenomenal. Milbry has a huge fan club of successful men and women who are awed by her energy and accomplishments. Major big shot funders such as David and Julia Koch, Ted Janulis, Sara Lee Schupf and Lekha Singh are actively involved. The 4th annual Women of Discovery award dinner was organized with luminaries such as Uma Thurman, Bertha Coombs of CNBC (she’s terrific at fundraising events), and auctioneer, Eliza Osborne of Sotheby’s.

How Milbry Polk became an explorer is the centerpiece of the story. Milbry’s interest in adventure was nurtured by Bill Polk, her world-traveling father. Every Christmas, Bill Polk would place an envelope in the tree for young Milbry. In it was a plane ticket to some far off locale such as Yemen, Egypt or Pakistan. Says Milbry, “I first went whitewater rafting when I was eleven. When I was seventeen, I went to Prince William Sound to train as a wilderness guide. Most of the other trainees were Navy SEALs. I had lied about my age and gender. By the time they found out, I had proven my ability, so they let me stay.”
Susan Hannah, Intrepid Museum and Maya Tolstoy, Wings 2009 Awardee
Milbry then entered Harvard, where she majored in Anthropology. One of her early explorer heroes was Alexander the Great. Milbry decided her first adventure would be to retrace his trek. Upon graduating from Harvard, Milbry was torn between her adventure or pursuing a post-graduate degree. After a fortuitous conversation with Margaret Mead, and sharing with the esteemed American cultural anthropologist, her desire to retrace Alexander the Great’s footsteps across the western desert of Egypt, Mead advised Milbry, “Skip grad school for now, and follow your heart.” Milbry got a grant from National Geographic, bought ten camels, and it launched her professional future.

Says Milbry, “When I started, I did not know there were women explorers. It was a male dominated field. I first set-out to find five extraordinary women, and instantly knew I was sitting on a great story.” That research became the basis for my book, Women of Discovery. “Milbry has authored twelve books to date. Her life transformed as an explorer, even when she was seven months pregnant, Milbry was climbing rock walls in Saudi Arabia. Milbry says that it has not been easy juggling the responsibilities of wife, mother, teacher, writer and explorer. There were many occasions when her three daughters were younger, they would say as she was headed out the door for another adventure, “Hurry home soon, Mommy, we’ll miss you.”
Artist Tatyana Murray and Uma Thurman. Frederick Johnston, Pew Charitable Trust, with Martha Shaw, Earth Advertising and eFlicks Media.
Adelaide Polk-Bauman, Auction Chair, with Bree Polk-Bauman Wings Volunteer.
Milbry started WINGS WorldQuest to give back to women explorers who are working day-to-day in the field. The core mission is to provide funding and recognition to women who are doing worthwhile projects. WINGS first gala was in 2003, where they honored six women, raised and gave each $10,000, a significant grant. WINGS is modeled after the Royal Geographic Society, the Royal Canadian Geographic Society, and the Explorers Club. Milbry is a fellow of all three, and WINGS works with each organization. While WINGS has recognized noted explorers such as Jane Goodall and Sylvia Earl, Milbry says her greatest satisfaction is finding fledgling women explorers where a WINGS award can lead to major grants from organizations like the MacArthur Foundation. Says Milbry, “Our youngest awardee was 23, and the oldest, 94. Some have not completed high school, others have graduate degrees, yet all have made important discoveries. They are contributing substantially to our understanding of the world. For example, Marie Tharp, a pioneer in mapping ocean floors, was the first to prove plate tectonics.

When I asked Milbry about how young people view women explorers today versus when she started, she answered, “Young people today don’t differentiate between men and women explorers; they are more interested in the discoveries. WINGS goal is to erase the gender difference. My hope is that in twenty years, WINGS will no longer be needed. But now, we are at a critical time in human history. We are not just facing climate change, and all that implies, including major species extinction. We are facing a massive change in life as we know it. Why the work of explorers is so important, is that they are on the front lines making the discoveries that will help inform the rest of us about the interconnections of all life on earth, so we can make the best decisions going forward. These explorer heroes are inspiring the rest of us to get engaged with living and learning about our miraculous planet."
The evening’s festivities were opened with a Buddhist Blessing by the Venerable Kalsang Tenzin. Actor/Producer/Director Griffin Dunne shares a laugh with Bertha Coombs as he prepares to introduce Women of Discovery Earth Awardee, Susan Dudley.
David Rothenberg performs a jazz tune accompanied by whale song to set the mood for the presentation of the Women of Discovery Sea Award to Alexandra Morton.
Acclaimed Filmmaker Mira Nair joined us to present the Lifetime Achievement Award to photographers Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher for their internationally celebrated work documenting the people, cultures, and traditional ceremonies of Africa.
Mira Nair, Uma Thurman, and Arki Busson.
Carol and Angela accept their Lifetime Achievement Award.
One final comment about adventure, gender and age: While at the WINGS gala dinner, I sat with Dan Bennett, past President of the Explorers Club, and his lovely wife, Collette, who runs special projects for Rolex. Dan and I recalled our friend, Clif Maloney, late husband of Rep. Carolyn Maloney, who passed away last fall climbing Cho Oyu in Tibet, the sixth highest summit in the world. Clif Maloney at 71 became the oldest explorer to achieve such a feat. Upon making the summit of Cho Oyu at 27,000 feet, Clif called his wife, Carolyn, to say, “I made it, and I am the happiest man in the world.” Maloney then descended to their camp at 23,000, went to his tent for some much needed rest, and never awoke.

So whether it is a young girl who sets her sights on a dream of adventure at an early age, supporting women explorers financially to keep at their work, or a septuagenarian seeking his goal to reach one of the world’s highest peaks, these people lead extraordinary lives from many of us.

Milbry Polk is their colleague and cheerleader.
Awardees Angela Fisher, Uma, and Carol Beckwith with gift bags made by the Maasai.
Photographs by Karen Zieff, Zieff Photography


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