NEW YORK — Hal Kahn may have been the warmup act for Bill Clinton at the 26th Annual Dinner of Champions, for the Multiple Sclerosis Society last Thursday, but there was no upstaging the Macy’s East chairman and chief executive.

Kahn, who rarely lets down his guard and prefers being out of the spotlight despite his big job, wiped away a tear or two as he accepted the 2002 MS Leadership Award. His sister, Phyllis Moyal, suffers from MS, and Kahn has long been active raising awareness and funds to fight the disease.

"I have personally seen how MS can rob young people of their youth," Kahn said. "Every step in the therapy is exhaustive.’’

Kahn seemed awestruck, addressing a huge crowd of 1,600 at the Marriott Marquee, filled with celebrities and fashion industry executives. The event raised $2.7 million, beating the previous recordby 50 percent. Among those present were Barbara Walters, Beverly Sills, John Spencer of "The West Wing," Terry Lundgren, president of Federated Department Stores, and Paul Charron of Liz Claiborne.

"I can’t believe I’m standing here in front of this star-studded crowd," Kahn said, managing to inject some levity into a sentimental and serious moment. "In college, I was afraid to raise my hand because I was too shy. And now I’m getting a leadership award. How does a retailer, with business the way it is, get any award? I’m lucky to have a job."

Then Clinton received the National Hope Award from the MS Society, and said: "Hal Kahn’s love for his sister is profound," and added, "I think I’ll spend more at Macy’s this year."

"The older I get, the more grateful I am for my life," Clinton said. "The more fortunate we are, the more of an obligation we have to see that the natural order of life is not interrupted. Until we find a cure, there never will be a time when we don’t need a dinner like this, that we don’t need people like Hal Kahn."

Sills said that her daughter, who was a five-mile runner and loved to trek through the Himalayas, was stricken with MS in her thirties. "She was in the prime of her life. We don’t know what causes this disease or how to cure it," Sills said.Spencer received the Champion of the Arts Award from the MS Society, for his show’s realistic portrayal of MS. The character of the president is afflicted with MS. Spencer stared right at Clinton, said how much he missed him, and then said if a TV show can help enlighten the world about the dreaded disease, "bringing it out of the darkness into the sunshine, then as entertainers, we must be very proud."

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