In her brightly colored summer silk, Gail Berendzen walked to the podium in the banquet hall of the Four Seasons Hotel, and gave a wan smile to the 250 or so women gathered to show they were still her friends. She said: "Twenty-five years ago when I married Richard, I loved him, admired him and respected him. Now, today, having heard what I have heard, knowing what I know, I realize that I love, admire, and respect him ... more."
Richard Berendzen resigned April 8 as president of American University. He pleaded guilty May 23 in Fairfax County General District Court to two charges of making obscene phone calls, and was sentenced to two 30-day jail terms, suspended on the condition he continue psychological treatment.
Yesterday, at a remarkable and emotional Washington event held to honor Gail Berendzen, she made her first public remarks since her husband's resignation. "I discovered that many people do not know how to react to an emotional problem," she said. "For a stroke or heart attack, they know. But for an emotional problem, they are uncertain. Well, the pain there can be just as real and intense as with any physical affliction. In the midst of our travail in the press, one of our daughters said to Richard: 'Daddy, if your body were hurting, people would send flowers. Your mind is hurting, so they throw bricks.' "
The "hundreds upon hundreds of letters and calls we have received" have convinced her, she said, that "each of us" can be "the hostage of our own past" -- referring presumably to her husband's statements that he was abused as a child. "Many people are living with pain -- sometimes from their childhood, sometimes from their recent past. Whenever it occurred, that pain lingers on."
They stood up for Mrs. Berendzen when she came to the podium and when she left it. The invitation to the luncheon was issued by 17 women, who listed themselves -- as is customary in such circles in Washington -- by their husband's names, preceded by the title "Mrs." The lunchers included charity volunteers (Barbara Gordon, Carmen Kreeger, Esther Coopersmith), businesswomen (Candy Somerville, Mary Ann Lundgren), and various well-known Washington names (Catherine Shouse, Carolyn Deaver, Sondra Bender), all of whom had presumably enjoyed the hospitality of the Berendzens in happier times. They paid $35 -- for their own lunch, and a little more, billed to go as a gift to the honoree. At her request, the "gift" will be money to the ChildHelp organization.
Everyone hugged the guest of honor and many said they had hesitated to call or write, lest they intrude. In her speech, she replied: "If you ever know someone who might need support, but you do not want to intrude, I urge you to overcome your doubts and reach out to them. Tell them what you are thinking. To them, silence might imply disinterest."
Then Mrs. Berendzen paid tribute to her audience. One of the most impressive of Washington's resources, she said, is its "remarkable core of women. They serve the city and the nation, often with little recognition. They care intensely about the community, about civic issues, and about each other. I have found that they bond. You here today exemplify exactly what I mean."
She turned a conventional greeting into far more when she began her remarks: "I am so glad to see you here today. In the last 10 years, I have said that many times at many functions, but never have I meant it more than right now," she said. "When all is said, what is fundamental is your faith, your family, and your friends. Especially at a time of crisis, they are absolutely bedrock."
In one of the eight tributes to Mrs. Berendzen, Peatsy Hollings issued a cautionary note. "We political wives are hard-driving breeds of people who are ambitious for our husbands," she said. But "we must watch out for ourselves, lest we be lost." And she told the story of the official couple who got along so well, because "they have so much in common -- they're both in love with the same man."
During the lunch, people talked about the reason they were there. "American women support each other," said Mimi Dehennin, wife of the Belgian ambassador. "They won't let you down." On the other hand, said Farol Seretean, "Washington is not a city of easy convenience. Gail is a unique lady." Designer Frankie Welch pointed out a major reason so many people came: "Gail has opened her house to every organization."
And real estate agent Allison La Land suggested, "maybe we should do this more often -- pay tribute to women who need our support. ... We could've started with Pat Nixon -- and go on to Effi Barry. Neither get credit for the good they've done."
But after all the tributes to her, Gail Berendzen, ever the loyal Washington wife, told a well-wisher that the honor to her reflected back on her husband. "I wouldn't have known any of these people without him."