The Lab School’s benefit at the Washington Hilton and Towers had all the look of a political convention Monday night, with balloon bouquets, patriotic decorations and a boisterous crowd of 1,200.
The cavernous International Ballroom was full of politicos from both parties as well, including Mayor Anthony A. Williams , Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham , Senior White House Adviser Karl Rove , Solicitor General Ted Olson and Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana.
The event, however, had little to do with the traditional rough-and-tumble of the democratic process, for it was the school’s 17th-anniversary awards ceremony, an all-aboard occasion that parents, students, faculty and benefactors support as fervently as any political cause.
“I don’t know exactly what they do [at the school], but it works. It’s magic,” said Mr. Rove, who has a 15-year-old son enrolled there.
“It’s just an amazing place,” agreed his wife, Darby Rove .
The school specializes in educating children with learning disabilities, and its awards ceremony honors current students as well as successful men and women who overcame their difficulties.
First up was the colorful fashion designer Victoria MacKenzie-Childs , looking rather regal in a black velvet dress (which she made in high school) with a silk band and fur-lined scarf draped across her chest and her hair highlighted by rainbow-colored streaks.
Mrs. MacKenzie-Childs, whose miniature dachshund Pinky was dressed in one of her colorful creations as well, said that though the children at the school might be labeled “learning disabled,” the term was, in many ways, inaccurate.
She said she wasn’t doing well in school as a child, but her parents believed in her and made sure she had the extra tutoring she needed. She graduated as valedictorian of her class.
Mrs. MacKenzie-Childs’ award was supposed to have been presented by Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Joe Allbaugh, who canceled at the last minute to direct his attention to the American Airlines crash in Queens earlier in the day.
That tragedy might well have been in people’s thoughts, although no one mentioned it in the speeches, which were focused on the school and its ability to bring out the best in children with learning disabilities.
Mr. Rove introduced Cisco Systems Chief Executive Officer John Chambers , who revealed that his problems with reading and writing had been a shameful secret for much of his life.
“I considered it a weakness and didn’t talk about it,” he said. After an encounter with a child who had learning disabilities several years ago, however, Mr. Chambers was encouraged to talk about his own disability and to work toward improving “education and leveling the playing field for all people in the world.”
Though he had just come from a party that celebrated a recent book by his late wife, Barbara Olson, who died in the terrorist attack of September 11, Mr. Olson’s introduction of honoree, legal colleague and sometimes foe David Boies was full of jokes and admiration.
“We had a wonderful relationship last winter,” Mr. Olson deadpanned at one point, referring, of course, to their well-publicized legal battle over the presidential vote recount in Florida.
When Mr. Boies was introduced as “one of America’s greatest litigators,” Mr. Olson changed that to “the greatest.”
“He’s a talented litigator and on top of it, he’s a gentleman,” Mr. Olson added.
After the introduction, Mr. Boies, named Time magazine’s Lawyer of the Year last year, riposted: “Thank you for those kind words. My father would have loved them, and my mother would have believed them.”
Another honoree, Tony Award-winning actress Zoe Caldwell, was hailed by Arena Stage Artistic Director Molly Smith as “the essence of theater.”
Miss Caldwell, who had spent part of the day at the school, said she was impressed with the students, teachers and Director Sally L. Smith . Mrs. Smith founded the school in 1967.
“If we could just get Sally to take over the world, we’d all be safe,” Miss Caldwell told the crowd.