When David and Penny McCall left their Manhattan penthouse for Albania eight weeks ago, they knew they were headed to the poorest country in Europe, they knew getting around wouldn't be easy, and they knew the depth of suffering they'd see in the refugee camps along the northern border with Kosovo. But the difficulties and the potential risks of the trip didn't really matter to them.
What did matter was the possibility of doing something to ease the pain of families driven from their homes by the Serbian army. What mattered was their mission, their excitement about it, and their determination not to waste even one more day. They left on short notice only hours before the party celebrating the sixth anniversary of David's marketing-and-communications company. There was no way they could have known they'd never see any of their friends and colleagues again.
Working as volunteers for Refugees International, an independent advocacy group they'd been involved with since the early nineties, the McCalls were rushing to Albania to test a newly designed radio receiver about the size of a small boom box with a three-inch satellite dish on it. The receivers could be used to help reunite exhausted and traumatized refugee families. They might even provide some small measure of psychic comfort by broadcasting CNN and Albanian music. The McCalls were so taken with the project, they not only wanted to be there for the trial run but also committed $150,000 of their own money to buy receivers for the refugee camps.
"The McCalls had been looking for something they could do, some way they could have an impact on the suffering," says Dennis Grace, former vice-president of Refugees International. "This project was simple and could be done relatively quickly. It was exactly the kind of microproject David was attracted to. It was an idea he could fund for something less than an enormous amount of money and that gets some kind of aid directly to those who need it."
It's hard, at first glance, to imagine two more unlikely aid workers. There was Penny, 57, the tall, lean thoroughbred from Greenwich, the granddaughter of one of the founders of the 3M company, with her blonde coif, upper-class bearing, nipped-and-tucked face, drop-dead clothes, Manolo Blahnik heels, and personal trainers.
Then there was David, 71, who spent his early childhood in France and went to Hotchkiss and Yale, and whose grandfather was a founder of the New York Life Insurance Company. David grew up to be an unassuming, slope-shouldered advertising copywriter who, as co-founder of McCaffrey and McCall and the creator of such memorably flossy lines as "coffee that tastes as good as it smells," became a legend in the advertising business.
Yet it was this same David and Penny, with their impeccable pedigree, who had traveled extensively over the past eight years to places where there were people in need -- Malawi, Rwanda, Eritrea, Mozambique, Thailand, Cambodia. This same David and Penny with their magnificent house on Sagg Pond in Bridgehampton, nicknamed the Taj McCall, with its panoramic water views, Tuscan tower kitchen, and climate-controlled art gallery, who were creating an international center devoted to the overwhelming problem of land mines.
"People of their station, the McCalls' peers, who are interested in philanthropy," says Balkans expert Richard Holbrooke, who is also the chairman of Refugees International and President Clinton's nominee to become ambassador to the United Nations, "usually go the more traditional route. They attend black-tie dinners and write checks to support things like the Met or the library. They're not interested in sweaty causes. Refugees are a sweaty cause. You can understand George Soros -- he's a refugee himself. But the McCalls? Well, the McCalls were just different."