"The Tonight Show's" Ed McMahon saying "Heeeeeere's Hartke!"

Last night, as he stepped up to the dais, the Rev. Gilbert Hartke received a standing ovation from 50 years of graduates of the Catholic University drama department, which Hartke founded.

It was an evening of end-to-end accolades. They came from CU graduates and friends:

"Talking with him as a college student was like saying hello to John the Baptist on the Mount," said McMahon.

"I grant him the degree of perfect humanism," said Washington Performing Arts Society founder Patrick Hayes.

"Priest. Teacher. Leader. Confessor. Pardoner. Gentle Man. Friend," said drama critic Richard L. Coe.

"He told me, 'You'll always have a home here,' " said actress Pat Carroll.

But it was theatre's first lady -- Helen Hayes -- who gave possibly one of the most memorable tributes, which concluded: "Prayer belongs in the theater. It was the church that kept the theater alive in the dark ages. So I'm all for more Father Hartkes in the world."

Before the testimonials at the Shoreham Hotel, Hartke said of his half-century at CU, "You're so engrossed, time runs away from you. The years have been wonderful. I've picked up so many friends . . .

"You think about what has happened rather than about what is going to happen. Especially when you are in a business of immediate communication . . . The immediacy of the moment is what one concentrates on, which makes you lose a sense of how it's going to be 50 years from now."

"Here comes one of my girls now," he said, turning to actress Barbara Andres. "Where are you going? How dare you walk by me!"

She gave him a quiet, but theatrical, kiss. "I've just been doing the stage production of 'Doonesbury,' " she explained.

Hartke tributes were everywhere in the ballroom:

"I've have nothing but affection and admiration for him," said the Rev. William J. Byron, Catholic University's president. "He's a great priest and a great human. He believes in human potential and his life has been a releasing of that potential in young people."

Said 19-year-old Camille Shaffer, a drama sophomore at Catholic: "He's there every day . . . he's very nice."

The evening also marked the launching of the Ed McMahon Scholarship Endowment to assist CU students preparing for careers in broadcasting, and alumni awards for actor Philip Bosco, ABC vice president for daytime programming Jo Ann Emmerich, director Tony Giordano, playwright/actor Jason Miller and playwright John L. Pielmeier.