Preparing for the Ball of a Lifetime

By Avis Thomas-Lester
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 19, 2009

They are victims of hurricanes and women who suffered in abusive relationships; they are disabled adults and children scarred by poverty. Some suffer from terminal illness. They arrived in Washington by plane, train and automobile from as far away as New Orleans, Galveston, Tex., and Wichita, invited to witness one of the biggest events in a generation.

"Prince, you are stepping up!" Prince Brooks said to himself as he walked into the elegant lobby of the JW Marriott Hotel, surrounded by chandeliers, liveried bellmen and ornate furnishings. "I've got to make the most of it."

Brooks, 57, a homeless veteran, was among hundreds of people from across the country whom Fairfax County businessman Earl W. Stafford invited to attend an inaugural ball in space he rented at the Marriott, two blocks from the White House.

Stafford conceived of it as a simple idea: celebrate the inauguration of the nation's first African American president by inviting to Washington as many people as he could afford, people whose health or economic circumstances would prohibit them from making the trip on their own.

He called it the People's Inaugural Ball and planned other events, including a nighttime tour on the visitors' first evening in Washington, a prayer breakfast and a luncheon today in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.

Stafford told a team of volunteers working with him to provide his guests with everything they need, including luxury accommodations and gowns and tuxedos for the ball.

Things started slow, and then the word got out about what he was doing, and the avalanche started.

Ruth Campbell, 91, of Bessemer, Ala., who lived through the struggles of Jim Crow segregation, was nominated by relatives as a worthy guest. Someone also contacted them about Rachel "Mama" Tucker, 106, who remembers both world wars and the Great Depression and lives very independently in an independent-living facility for seniors in Alexandria. Someone in Galveston suggested that folks still reeling from Hurricane Ike could use something to cheer about, and officials at the Work Activity Center in Wichita thought the trip would be of immense help to 13 developmentally disabled adults who receive vocational training there.

Then volunteers from the Northern Virginia chapter of the National Urban League started contacting men and women who wanted to donate evening gowns and tuxedos. Hundreds of gowns poured in -- so many that volunteers had to announce that no more could be accepted. Two hundred tuxes came in. A shoe company in Atlanta donated 100 pairs of men's shoes. Hairdressers, barbers and manicurists offered to come in to beautify the guests. Seamstresses offered to make adjustments to any clothing.

Yesterday, the guests flooded into the hotel lobby, registering for rooms with 400-thread-count sheets and down comforters. Even as they benefited from Stafford's generosity yesterday, most of the guests said that they didn't know who he was or that he was spending $1.6 million on them.

"This is a wonderful opportunity and a wonderful thing for somebody to do," Brooks said, marveling at his surroundings. "He didn't have to do this. I think he was listening to his heart. We all have a spiritual self that needs to be harvested, and that is what he is doing. I applaud him for that."

Although some did not know Stafford's name, guests said they felt the Lord in evidence everywhere.

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