- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 29, 2006

George and Martha Washington, life-size and cast in bronze, greeted guests attending Thursday’s gala opening of Mount Vernon’s new Ford Orientation Center and Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center.

“I’m so excited that I’m about to burst,” gushed Gay Hart Gaines, regent of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, which has owned the Washington property since 1858.

Miss Gaines and vice regent Melody Sawyer Richardson, who chaired the event, hosted 520 VIPs and donors who helped pay for the $112 million visitor complex, which opened to the public on Friday. Among those attending were H. Ross Perot, Ambassador to Barbados Mary Ourisman, Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt, former Army Secretary Togo West, developer-builder Robert H. Smith and TV journalists Roger Mudd and Cokie Roberts.

After cocktails in the orientation center’s lobby, guests watched the $5 million action movie “We Fight to Be Free.”

The biggest challenge of playing George Washington, said actor Sebastian Roche, who was accompanied by the film’s producer Craig Haffner and director Kees van Oostrum, was “to present him with authority and not as a wax figure.”

Tours of the adjacent Reynolds Museum and Education Center followed, prompting comments on our first president. “George Washington reminds me of General [Dwight] Eisenhower in his ability to hold the country together,” said Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.. “I wish we would go back to some of the traditions of Washington and our founders,” said environmentalist Bill Nitze.

Guests moved from the 66,700-square-foot visitor complex to the mansion for a quick tour by artificial candlelight. A fife and drum corps played “Yankee Doodle” and continued the patriotic music during a fireworks display over the Potomac. Then it was on to a heated tent for dancing and a dinner of Colonial mushroom “pye,” duck with cherry sauce and chocolate cake.

Newscaster Kathleen Matthews emceed the dinner program, which featured remarks by theologian Michael Novak, a sultry “Summertime” sung by soprano Nicole Cabell and happy 60th birthday wishes to game show host Pat Sajak — who narrated one of the 14 films shown in the new buildings. A stirring speech by historian David McCullough summed up the importance of George Washington to the nation.

“He exemplified courage and strength … and he would not give up,” Mr. McCullough said, noting the importance of those qualities “as we try to cope with our own uncertainties [today].”

Jim Rees, executive director of Mount Vernon, ended the evening by calling for the abolition of Presidents Day. “This three-day weekend has evolved into the most innocuous shopping weekend,” he said, urging a more meaningful holiday. “We need to re-establish George Washington’s birthday.”

Deborah K. Dietsch

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