The ongoing importance of the United Nations' mission was at the heart of a Sunday afternoon talk by Anthony Lake, former national security adviser and current executive director of the United Nations Children's Fund -- UNICEF.

But Lake, who grew up in New Canaan, combined his sober talk on world affairs with some personal reminiscences about his younger days.

Lake was the keynote speaker for the seventh annual Anita Houston Memorial Lecture, which took place in the New Canaan Library's Adrian Lamb Room and was co-sponsored by the library and the U.N. Committee of New Canaan. Houston, who died in 2007, was an active longtime committee member and, on her 90th birthday, was named by town proclamation as New Canaan's "Ambassador for World Affairs."

"It is an honor to give a talk in this series for Anita Houston, and I'm more than touched," Lake, who knew her growing up, said. "I'm moved as I think back on the times with her."

Prior to Lake's introduction, Houston's granddaughters -- Emily Eagan and Marianna Werth -- shared their memories of her, and in relation to Lake.

"She constantly opened her doors to international guests, as many of you know," Eagan said.

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"Tony was always a favorite of Granny's," Werth said. "He was the best of the brightest, and the joke was that Granny always wanted Tony Lake as a son."

Lake not only noted the influence Houston had on his career, beginning with his first visit to the United Nations, but shared about his relationship with the whole family, which included doing yard work at Houston's house as a young man.

"I have to so many warm memories of all the Houstons," he said. "Then there are the memories of the lawn and the gardens and trimming and the yellow jacket hole, where Anita, with typical force of character, said to go out and get rid of the yellow jackets."

Lake ultimately went on to attend Harvard College, eventually receiving his Ph.D. from Princeton University. While his career began in 1962 as a foreign service officer, he eventually went on to advise several Democratic U.S. presidents on foreign policy. He served as President Bill Clinton's national security adviser from 1993 to 1997.

Along with authoring several books and teaching at both Amherst and Mount Holyoke colleges, Lake served as the president's special envoy to Haiti, Ethiopia and Eritrea, also playing a role in shaping policy that led to peace in Bosnia, Herzegovina and Northern Ireland.

"The breadth of his distinguished public service is truly remarkable," Pete Runnette, the chairman of the U.N. Committee of New Canaan, said as he introduced Lake. "His relationship with UNICEF dates from 1993."

Lake credited Houston with teaching him that "committed citizens can have a practical, direct impact on communities around the world."

Further, he emphasized, assisting other nations is a key to improving our own country. "When American citizens are engaged in the welfare of others, that has an impact on the welfare of American citizens," he said.

"History has shown what happens (when) countries focus solely on their self-interests," he said, citing the two world wars as examples. "We achieve common goals only by taking common actions on common principles."

While he conceded that the United Nations can be a frustrating place, where "talk sometimes masquerades as action," he emphasized its importance.

"Of course, yes, I certainly share these frustrations, but there's no question that the world would be far more chaotic and fractious if the U.N didn't exist at all," he said.

Along with touting the various important work the United Nations does in relation to human rights, health, nutrition, education and diplomacy, Lake focused in the mission as it relates to children.

"Children have rights because all human beings have rights," he said. "These rights are not conveyed like a driver's license at the age of 16 ... They are innate."

He pointed out that the United States is one of two countries that has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

"As an American, and as part of an organization dedicated to children and its rights, I hope our country will ratify the Convention of the Rights of the Child," Lake said. "Respecting children's rights supports healthy families and healthy families are the lifeblood of successful nations."

He pointed out the economic disparities between families in Bridgeport and Greenwich. He explained that families are at the heart of the American Dream, so it's key that children begin with the opportunities to make success possible.

"When we make our nation -- every nation -- a better place for children ... we are literally shaping our destiny," he said.

"It's a cliche that children are our future, but like many cliches, it's true."

Jarret Liotta is a freelance writer.