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Dionne Warwick feted in Washington for her early (and ongoing) AIDS advocacy

Dionne Warwick. (Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine)

Dionne Warwick has heard the question for 50 years — yes, she knows the way to San Jose, and everyplace else, thank you very much. (So enough with the corny jokes, people.) The legendary singer, now 77, made her way to Washington on Tuesday for the lesser-known side of her legacy: her decades-long fight for AIDS patients.

Warwick, one of the biggest music stars of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, was one of the first celebrities to talk about the AIDS crisis when the disease was little understood and much feared. She persuaded Elton John, Stevie Wonder and Gladys Knight to join her in recording “That’s What Friends Are For” — which turned into an international AIDS anthem and raised millions for research — and was asked by President Reagan to be a public ambassador to educate the public about the crisis.

So her trip to the nation’s capital this week was dedicated to that work, with a tour of the University of Maryland’s Institute of Human Virology (IHV), led by co-founder and world-renowned AIDS researcher Robert Gallo; a second tour of a Baltimore patient facility; and a dinner at Café Milano hosted by owner and IHV board member Franco Nuschese, who first met Warwick 35 years ago when she was performing in Las Vegas.

“I had the most incredible day,” Warwick told the dinner guests about meeting patients and researchers. “I’ve dedicated my being to be a part of it until that train ride I got on at the beginning has finally found its destination. We’re going to all work toward making that happen.”

Warwick got choked up but stopped herself: “I’m not going to cry because it will mess up my mascara.”

Gallo took a more clinical approach. Much of the science of AIDS, he explained, has been discovered; now researchers are looking for a vaccine and a cure. Warwick’s visit with staff and patients was “inspirational.” “She likes to serve,” he said. “She’s big-time involved, and she’s smart. She can keep the awareness up.”

Unsurprisingly, the singer was not talking about salacious allegations about her late sister’s relationship to Whitney Houston — and guests at the dinner did not ask, opting instead for selfies. A smiling but tired Warwick (she flew in from Hawaii for the visit) accommodated them all. Gallo asked for a bit more: He wants Warwick on his board, and — also not surprising — she said yes.