Several hundred Virginians turned out at the Sheraton Premiere in Tysons Corner last Thursday to honor former Fairfax County executive J. Hamilton Lambert, who retired at the end of last year after 31 years in county government.
"A Salute to J" brought together a diverse group ranging from top Northern Virginia decision-makers such as School Superintendent Robert R. Spillane, a Lambert rival, to developer John T. "Til" Hazel, to dozens of loyal county staff employees and various politicians.
Master of ceremonies for the tribute was former governor Gerald L. Baliles, a law partner with the prominent Virginia firm of Hunton and Williams, whom Lambert called a "great man" and "my friend."
Baliles introduced four speakers who "roasted" Lambert on topics ranging from his boyhood in Loudoun County to his unmistakable girth.
The evening, full of seriousness and laughter, painted a picture of a man who grew up in rural Loudoun County, and, without a college education, became one of the most powerful and respected leaders in the Washington area.
He joined Fairfax County government as a draftsman, rose to prominence as an expert on sewer facilities and served as the county's top appointed official the last decade.
"We respect him, even if we don't always agree with him," Baliles said of Lambert. "We admire the fact that his capacity for understanding and generosity are exceeded only by the size of his former girth."
Lambert, 50, has lost about 70 pounds in recent months on orders from his doctor.
Dexter S. Odin, former Fairfax County attorney who is now in private practice, spoke first, followed by John J. Castellani, an executive with TRW Inc. and a former next-door neighbor of Lambert's; John G. Milliken, state secretary of transportation; and Lewis H. Griffith, former chief judge of Fairfax County Circuit Court.
The jokes at Lambert's expense included references to his salary -- more than $125,000 when he retired -- and his ability to keep the Board of Supervisors happy, but also paid tribute to Lambert's unflagging devotion to the county and the long hours of service he put in.
Lambert's wife of 26 years, Catherine, also was honored with roses and a standing ovation.
Odin jokingly referred to Lambert as a "legend in his own mind" and drew plenty of laughter working on the theme of the former county executive as a "self-made man."
"If a man was going to make himself, why would he make himself look like that? You've got to ask yourself, 'What did he want to be?' " Odin said.
Milliken recalled growing up with Lambert in Loudoun County, where they were members of the same Boy Scout troop, whose scoutmaster Lambert called "the governing body," a reference to the term Lambert used for the Board of Supervisors.
Milliken said he and Lambert both participated in a stage play: "I played a tree. J. played a boulder."
The 4 1/2-hour event started at 6 p.m. with a one-hour cocktail reception, followed by dinner and the salutes. The evening ended about 10:30 after Lambert's response.
The former county executive made a few jokes about fixed income (his retirement is $70,000- plus per year) and thanked those responsible for the evening.
"First, I would really personally like to thank those from the bottom of my heart, in my very soul . . . who made this evening entirely possible: the members of the Fairfax County Retirement Board," Lambert said, which drew a big laugh.
In a break with the usual practice of taking criticism, Lambert responded to some of the charges that had been leveled against him over the years, ranging from decisions he had made to his lack of a college education and his powerful hold on the county bureaucracy.
"I tried to do what I thought was best," said the Loudoun County native, now a resident of Great Falls. "And in many instances, it didn't make anybody happy. That's the way the action plays."
In closing, Lambert said he was blessed to work for Fairfax County and was "doubly blessed when hundreds and literally thousands of people from all walks of life saw fit to help me, and in some instances pushed me where I was afraid to go."
Then he thanked the audience and others, past and present, who "helped this simple man along his way."
He closed to a standing ovation.