- The Washington Times - Friday, June 6, 2003

Gray skies and subseasonal temperatures (colder than Anchorage, Alaska, in fact) didn’t put a damper on party spirits at the Children’s Hearing and Speech Center’s Country Barbecue Wednesday night.

“This is the best social event of the year,” said PR exec David Bass (before cutting out early to attend the Radio and TV Correspondents Dinner). “It’s in a great location, it’s a great cause … and you get see the most ridiculous pants on men in Washington.”

Tantalizing trousers — floral patterned and checkered cotton, pink linen and green satin, worn with blazers or conservative sports coats — are a relatively new fad for the younger gents in attendance, Mr. Bass observed: a rite of spring at a 40-year-old event otherwise steeped in tradition.

Many of the 500 guests gave high marks to the party as well, and why not? Most have been coming for years. Among them: Cynthia Helms, C. Boyden Gray, Tony and Buffy Miles, John and Toni Gore, G. Lauder and Abigail Greenway, Cooby Greenway, Francis and Natalie de Wolf, Jennifer Urquhart, Samantha and Jimmy Corrigan, Simon Jacobsen, Tristam Carlisle, Brice and Diana Claggett, Katryna Carothers, Christopher and Wendy Makins, A, Michael Sullivan and Robin and Lynn Nicholas.

The event is also known for having the longest cocktail “hour” of any Washington charity benefit. It’s laid-back (casual attire rather than black-tie) with sloppy, scrumptious barbecue and a live band playing music from the swing era.

The setting is always the same: a tent on the lush, beautiful grounds of Villa Firenze, the 2-acre Italian Embassy residence on Albemarle Street NW. (Sergio Vento, Italy’s newly credentialed envoy to the United States, was on hand to help host the first of what will surely be many barbecues to come.)

There’s lots of fun and flair, but no one forgets the cause — helping children with speech and hearing problems.

Georgia Shallcross, a member of the center’s board, compared the magical setting to the magic doctors and speech therapists do for their young, hearing-impaired patients.

One of the children who has been treated there, 4-year old Oban Johnson, came to the party, too. He was diagnosed as being deaf at the age of 8 months, but after a cochlear implant and speech and hearing therapy at the center, he’s almost “mainstreamed,” said his mother Robbin Small.

“The center provides the best care you can get,” said Dan Johnson, Oban’s father. “It’s the reason we moved here. To be close.”

The barbecue raises about $50,000 each year. The proceeds are considered “outside” the main budget and can be used on a need-be basis, said Dr. Sheela Stuart, director of the facility, located at Children’s National Medical Center in Northwest.

“Sometimes we have parents who can’t pay, and we might use some of this money to help them,” she said, noting that staff training and educational programs also receive funding.

“I don’t know how I could do my job without it,” Dr. Stuart said.

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