While Lee Iacocca received quite a bit of attention at last night's Juvenile Diabetes Foundation's "Salute to the National Institutes of Health," his chief function was that of escort.

He showed up at the Hyatt Regency Bethesda with his daughter Kathi, a cochairman of the event, and she took center stage.

Looking elegant in a sequined white dress, she accepted a plaque from Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes and thanked the NIH for its work in combatting the disease.

"I lost my mom to it. We have to get rid of it," said the young Iacocca, whose mother Mary died in 1983 of complications from diabetes. Kathi Iacocca is now president of the Iacocca Foundation, which seeks to raise money for further research. Of her mother's experience, she remarked, "It was tough. For 34 years, she was in and out of hospitals. It was very scary, particularly when I was little. There was constant concern."

Looking proudly at his daughter during the predinner reception, Iacocca, the Chrysler Corp. chairman, said of the gala, "I'm happy about it. We're working hard to create an awareness of the disease. But it will take more than fund raising. We need to do research."

The planned highlight of the evening was the presentation of a sculpture, "The Angel of Bethesda," to Dr. James Wyngaarden, director of NIH. The sculpture was inspired by the biblical story of the angel who came down to stir the curative waters of Bethesda, just outside Jerusalem. Local artist Phillip Ratner designed the bronze relief, which will be displayed somewhere on the grounds of the NIH campus.

"It's been spectacular," said Peoples Drug Stores Chairman Sheldon Fantle, the other cochairman of the fundraiser.

"The gala sold out. We had to turn people away," he said, adding that the event was expected to raise about $250,000 for the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation.

Most of the 500 guests who turned out for the dancing and fine food had some personal connection with diabetes. Nancy Morgan, a Justice Department lawyer, learned six months ago that she has the disease. She now takes insulin twice a day and says the disease has had a "pervasive effect" on her life. "It alters your life style -- you worry about how it's going to affect your future," she said.

Susan Fuge, whose 3-year-old son is diabetic, spoke about the changes in her family's life. "Jeffrey needs to eat six times a day, take three blood tests, two shots and two urine tests," she said. "You can't go away, you never leave your child for more than an hour. It's very stressful, but you have no choice."

For most of those present there seemed to be no choice but to keep working against diabetes. Those with family members who suffer from the disease seemed to consider that work a labor of love. Among them was Barbara de Franceaux, a foundation board member who, caught up in the enthusiasm of the evening, exclaimed, "My son -- he's worth it."