|Tommy Cvitanovich, left, awarded the 2010 Loving Cup.|
By John Pope, Times-Picayune
In a ceremony punctuated by hugs, high-fives and prolonged standing ovations, Tommy Cvitanovich received The Times-Picayune Loving Cup on Sunday afternoon.
"This is actually the honor of a lifetime. It still hasn't sunk in completely," Cvitanovich, the co-owner and manager of Drago's Restaurant, said as he faced cheering relatives, co-workers and friends who had filled the pews at St. Clement of Rome Church in Metairie.
The Loving Cup has been awarded since 1901 to men and women who have worked unselfishly for the community without expectation of public recognition or reward.
In his speech, Cvitanovich tried to deflect the spotlight from himself to share the credit with people he called by name, including family members, restaurant workers and people who have worked with him in charitable endeavors.
"This is not about me," he said. "It's about everybody around me. ... We do this together."
Receiving special thanks were Klara Cvitanovich, his mother and business partner, to whom he gave a bouquet of roses, and Leanne Cvitanovich, his wife, who received a bouquet of calla lilies.Although food is at the center of his life, the award committee stressed that Cvitanovich wasn't honored for work at the restaurant that his parents, Klara and Drago Cvitanovich, founded in 1969.
There's more than food to these people," said restaurateur Leah Chase, a Loving Cup recipient in an interview. "They're always ready to help somebody else."
Chase, the owner and chef of Dooky Chase's Restaurant, was on the receiving end of help from Cvitanovich and other restaurateurs after Hurricane Katrina, when they helped her rebuild her iconic Treme restaurant, which had been looted and deluged with about 5 feet of floodwater.
"To see an icon of our industry, a past recipient of the Loving Cup, in need, and to help her out was one of the proudest moments of my life," Cvitanovich said Sunday.
What Cvitanovich has done is "a great example of striving for the higher virtues," said the Rev. Joseph Krafft, director of human formation at Notre Dame Seminary, in the ceremony's invocation.
Cvitanovich's parents were born in Croatia.
Their son has said that his volunteer work started about 20 years ago, when war broke out in his parents' homeland. Klara Cvitanovich and the recently retired Archbishop Philip Hannan coordinated a relief drive to send food, medicine, clothing and diapers to that beleaguered region, and Tommy Cvitanovich helped load the massive containers.
After Katrina, he and his colleagues started giving out free meals because the Metairie restaurant had generators and gas. Eventually, he said, they fed nearly 80,000 people, not only out of the restaurant but also at a feeding station in the wreckage of a Lakeview church.
In recognition of this work, the National Restaurant Association gave him its Restaurant Neighbor Award. Cvitanovich gave the money to Grace King High School to help underwrite a program to prepare students for restaurant careers.
Cvitanovich helps organize Taste of the Town, a fundraiser for Lafreniere Park, and he is involved with the work of Padua Pediatrics Program in Belle Chasse for medically fragile children and young adults.
He also raises money for families of slain police officers and St. Andrew's Village, an Abita Springs community for disabled adults. And he is trying to help the Gulf seafood industry rebound in the wake of the BP oil spill.
Cvitanovich is a leader "who leads by personal example, with rolled-up sleeves," Times-Picayune Publisher Ashton Phelps Jr. said, adding that the honoree is "not someone who enlists others to help, but someone who plunges personally into the work of giving, time and time again.
"Tommy Cvitanovich is a big man. His heart is bigger yet."
John Pope can be reached at email@example.com or 504.826.3317.
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