Who knew that Colin Powell could be so funny?

In Philadelphia last night to present the Eisenhower Medal for exceptional leadership to Iraq Study Group cochairman Lee Hamilton, Powell, the retired general and former secretary of state, also cut the ribbon on the new South 16th Street headquarters of the Eisenhower Fellowship, an enrichment program for emerging leaders from around the world.

Founded in 1953 as a tribute to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the program has provided opportunities for professional growth to more than 1,700 alumni, including 100 who have served at the cabinet level of their respective governments, and 250 international CEOs.

At a ceremony inaugurating the new center, one of the trustees stumbled for a moment over how many years the program existed at the old center two doors away. Looking down at the plaque he was presenting, he realized the date that he needed was right there.

"All I have to do is read," he said, grinning.

"And count!" Powell quipped, triggering torrents of laughter.

At the evening ceremony at the Rittenhouse Hotel, Powell praised Hamilton, who represented Indiana for 34 years in Congress and serves now as president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. In addition to the Iraq Study Group, he has held positions on federal commissions concerning foreign intelligence, the 9/11 attacks and homeland security.

As funny as Powell was in the morning, Hamilton, 76, was bracing in his remarks, focused on the premise that "American diplomacy must address the world as it is, not as we wish it was."

"I'm not starry-eyed about what diplomacy can achieve. I do not believe that talking is a panacea. . . . In a very tough world, diplomacy must be integrated with the other tools of American power, including military force," Hamilton said.

But a course of not talking never solved any problems.

"I've never been of the school of thought that says, when we have difficulties with a country, we're going to shut down our embassies and pull our ambassador out," Hamilton said. "That's exactly the wrong thing to do."

The fellowship, a globally important institution, began in New York and came to Philadelphia through the generous self-interest of its first chairman, Thomas McCabe.

McCabe, the former head of Scott Paper Co., wanted to move the headquarters here because it was cheaper and closer to his home. But the trustees of that era ruled that no fellowship funds could be used to buy a new headquarters.

So, the legend goes, McCabe was riding in a taxi with another board member in 1957, when suddenly he said: "I'll pay for it."

He didn't mean the cab fare, he meant the fellowship's new digs.

McCabe bought the circa-1845, 4,300-square-foot, Federal-style townhouse at 256 S. 16th St. for $35,000.

The new building, approximately 9,300 square feet, built in 1903 by Thomas Mellon Rogers, the well-known architect who also helped restore Independence Hall, is at 250 S. 16th. It once housed the law offices of Charles Bowser, a mayoral candidate in the 1990s. It was purchased by the fellowship in 2006 for $2,175,000 and has been renovated throughout.

The fellowships operate on a budget of about $4 million a year, providing per diems and transportation allowances for up to two months of intensive travel, during which fellows meet prominent people in their respective fields throughout the world.

Back in Philadelphia they share ideas in ways that are not always possible in their home countries.

The present group of 25, for example, includes a national budget director from the Israeli finance ministry, and the Palestinian founder of a women-and- youth empowerment group in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

The program takes flight on Eisenhower's ethos: that there is no substitute for face-to-face contact in overcoming mistrust, strengthening knowledge and promoting peace.

"What I like about it is that you get to meet people from around the world and get their impressions of us as Americans. What they like about us, what they don't," said advisory board member James H. Agger, the retired general counsel of Air Products and Chemicals, an Allentown company among the fellowship's donors.

"We're not as well-known as you might expect," Agger said of the fellowships. "But I think we're doing something really good."

Contact staff writer Michael Matza at 215-854-2541, or mmatza@phillynews.com.