Raising her chin to reach the microphone, Mary Berry, the petite and fiery HEW official who today assumes an interim appointment as commissioner of education, stated the irony of the evening. "The timing of this (party) is just a simple twist of fate," said Berry somberly.
When the party was planned a few weeks ago, Berry was still assistant secretary of HEW for education, and the reception had no specific purpose, except as a tribute. But by last night it had become an unstated rally of support. "This event is somewhat marred by the course of events, and I'm saddened by the way they took place," said Berry.
On Wednesday it was reported that the Congressional Black Caucus had forced the withdrawal of Marshall Smith, the choice of HEW Secretary Joseph Califano as acting commissioner. Smith was charged with racism and Berry was named to fill the vacancy. Her 30-day appointment was followed by a rumor that the White House was waiting in the wings with a Hispanic nominee for secretary of education, if the department is approved by Congress next month. Last night's party, which grew from a small reception to a crowd of 600, was a strategic move to alert Washington officialdom that Berry has constituency.
Ofield Dukes, a consultant and publicist and one of the reception's organizers, denied any political intent. "There are receptions for people every day. This is a group of people who feel she has done some outstanding work and taken a beating on some issues," said Dukes. Whatever the intent or timing, the turnout did prove Berry has a following - mostly educators and civil rights groups familiar with her outspokenness and accessibility in a bureaucracy not noted for its directness.
Tom Shannon, the executive director of the National Association of School Boards with its 95,000 members, praised Berry's "humanity and positive leadership," while Rep. Carl Perkins (D-Ky.), the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said, "Her work is good and her principles are clear.
And Barbara Lett Simmons, a Washington school board member representing the National Alliance of Black School Educators, said, "We would support Dr. Berry for any higher office, without reservation. She has the mark of an energetic person who knows wisdom doesn't rest in one person. She doesn't play the oracle game." CAPTION: Picture, Karen Zuniga, Carl Perkins and Mary Berry; by Fred Sweets