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YOU'D THINK THAT THE HIGH POINT OF something called "Great Chef's Dinner" would be the meal. And this year, visiting chef Jim Gerhardt of Limestone Restaurant in Louisville, Ky., was part of the draw. But at this, the 17th annual such fundraiser for the Family Tree, the oohs and aahs began way before the first course was served. They started as soon as the doors to the dining rooms in the Grand Lodge at Hunt Valley opened, and guests to the sold-out event got their first look at the 35 tables inside. Each had been elaborately decorated by a different artist or designer.

"It's just something really fun. It's this extra punch, and I think that's why it's such a desired ticket in Baltimore," said board president Doug Brinkley.

There was a Spice Girls-themed table -- complete with red carpet and velvet rope -- as well as a Simpsons table. One table had a candy theme, with a centerpiece of big jars of sugary treats, while another one was chockablock with chocolates.

"Look at the one over there that has the [candelabra] the size of Montana," exclaimed Julie Mercer, Columbia Consulting Group.

"I have two grandchildren ... [so] I'm sitting at "Green Eggs and Ham," and I love it," said Family Tree board member Betsy Sherman. Her fluorescent orange and green table was one of two with a Dr. Seuss theme.

"They're unbelievable. ... That's all I can say," said Baltimore Orioles Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson as he scanned the room.

"The designers have done a wonderful job," agreed Laurie Frisch, who co-chaired the event with her husband, John Frisch, Lesley and Gary Geisel, and Sarah and Andrew Woods.


Diana Morris, 54, is executive director of Open Society Institute-Baltimore, which celebrates its 10th anniversary in a couple of weeks. A Pennsylvania native, Morris previously worked for the Blaustein Philanthropic Group and the Ford Foundation, where she started the Refugee and Migrant Rights Program, and worked as a human rights officer at its office in Nairobi, Kenya, for several years.

She lives in Lutherville with her husband, Peter Shiras, executive vice president of the International Youth Foundation, and their daughters, Tess, 17, and Chloe, 14.

You've been here almost 18 years. Do you feel like a Baltimore native now?

Not completely, but I feel this job really helps me get a great sense of how this city ticks; what works, what doesn't. That's really why I love it, because it allows me to meet some of the most dynamic people in the city. ... Baltimore sort of wears its needs on its sleeve. It's sort of raw in Baltimore, in the sense that there's the consciousness about where we are and where we need to get to. And I think there's a lot of energy in this city for change.

Speaking of energy, where does yours come from?

I really love shopping when I'm visiting developing countries that have this incredible array of ceramics and textiles and clothing and spices. Chocolate-covered raisins -- really, really important. And I do think that ice cream is a health food.

ONLINE Read more of the conversation with Diana Morris at / drink

ONLINE Sloane Brown takes you to the party with a calendar of coming events and video reports at / scene

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