The occasion was the Prince George's Chamber of Commerce's annual dinner, and the county's business and political elite were catching up on the latest gossip over soft drinks and wine.
County Council Chairman Samuel H. Dean (D-Mitchellville) and his wife, Donna, were chatting with acquaintances and waiting to be seated for dinner when two men in expensive suits approached and steered Dean into conversation a few feet away.
Donna Dean smiled and excused herself.
"I think I need to help extricate Sam from something," she said, heading toward the trio. A minute later, the Deans were circulating again, the two men dispatched to lobby elsewhere.
People who know the couple would classify the scene as classic Sam and Donna Dean.
Sam Dean is one of the most powerful men in Prince George's and possibly in Maryland. He's constantly being pulled at by everyone -- politicians, developers and business and community leaders pushing their agendas. Donna Dean's agenda for more than 20 years has been to support her husband, which at times has meant wedging her elegant presence between him and impending trouble.
In the parlance of their younger constituents, she's got his back.
"They support each other. They are truly a team," said Bob Bailey, legislative assistant to state Sen. Ulysses Currie (D-Prince George's). "They are both very community-minded. They are both very concerned for the community. They always come to the community first before making any big time decisions. They are a very unique couple in that they watch out for each other. I can't say anything but good about them."
With local and statewide elections looming, Maryland's movers and shakers know the road to everywhere important runs straight through Prince George's, and that has ramped up the number of lobbyists and special interest groups who have come calling.
Sam Dean receives hundreds of invitations each month. As his public relations manager, his wife is charged with sorting through the legions, accepting the ones that, as she put it, "will benefit the citizens of Prince George's County" and diplomatically sloughing off the rest.
On a recent day, Donna Dean sat at her desk in the County Administration Building in Upper Marlboro, with three file folders of invitations splayed out as other staff members worked on legislation and community issues nearby. It was a busy day for the County Council. A vote was scheduled to rescind the county's ban on pit bulls, and dozens of people had signed up to speak.
As she worked, Dean, turned out in a black suit with a calf-length skirt and leather boots, kept an eye on the council proceedings via a simulcast on her computer. She heard her husband's voice and looked up instinctively, taking in his demeanor to gauge his mood. It was after 1 p.m., and as usual he hadn't been able to eat lunch. Had it not been a hearing day, she would have negotiated a break to get him down to the cafeteria for a salad.
"I am not willing to sacrifice my husband's health for this job," she said.
Council colleagues said her concern for her husband, who is in excellent health, is legendary. She sees to it that he eats well, gets enough sleep and doesn't work himself as hard as he would like to.
"I've gotten him in trouble several times with Mrs. Dean about his diet because he doesn't eat the healthiest foods," council member Camille Exum (D-Seat Pleasant) said.
"I tell on him a lot. She'll say, 'Now, husband, you need to eat a salad. You need your vegetables.' I enjoy teasing them because they are just too perfect."
During his tenure on the council, Sam Dean has earned a reputation as a hardworking consensus builder. Easygoing and amiable, he has led the council in holding government more accountable to the residents of Prince George's.
In early skirmishes with County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) over the Dimensions Healthcare System and Prince George's Hospital Center debate and other issues, the council came out pumped up by a perception that the new members were less likely to walk in lock step with the county executive than previous councils had been. At the same time, council members were not willing to publicly speak ill of the executive branch.
Exum said Dean's strength is his ability to form alliances on important issues. Under his guidance, most council members have formed genuine friendships, she said.
"He is also a workaholic, and he works us tirelessly," she said. "I call him a taskmaster because he never gives us a moment's rest."
As chairman, Dean is a member of each council committee. He's an ex officio member of the Transportation, Housing and the Environment and the Health, Education and Human Services committees. He's a voting member of the Planning, Zoning and Economic Development and the Public Safety and Fiscal Management committees. He chairs the Rules, General Assembly and Committee-of-the-Whole.
The former president of the Lake Arbor Civic Association in Mitchellville, where the Deans live in a stately colonial home, Dean said he and his wife knew what they were taking on when they decided he would run for public office three years ago. Since taking the chairmanship, nights at home have become a rarity. The Deans attend as many as six events a day, often returning home at bedtime.
Acquaintances said county residents got a twofer when Dean was elected. Although she earns no salary, Donna Dean works in her husband's office an average of three days a week, logging untold additional hours at community forums, social events, dinners and other functions they attend each week.
"They really are a partnership," Exum said.
The couple begins each day with private time with their Bibles, then discuss the day over breakfast. On a recent morning, the Deans rose at 5:30 a.m. to attend the Ploughman and Fisherman breakfast, a Democratic fundraiser, at Martin's Crosswinds in Greenbelt before heading into the office at 9:30 a.m. for an agenda briefing and resolution presentations. On this morning, a High Point High School student was honored for his volunteer work.
After the presentation, Donna Dean headed up to her office and her husband to the council chamber. They would not leave until after 6 p.m., when they headed home for dinner -- her homemade vegetable soup and a salad -- before settling down for a rare night at home.
After 21 years of marriage, the Deans are as committed to each other as they are to public life. This is the second marriage for both.
They met in 1979 when both worked for the federal government as top-level human resources managers. He trained her, then she trained him. Their mutual respect turned into a warm friendship and later to love.
They were married in 1984 and recently celebrated their wedding anniversary with a getaway. They both have grown children from their first marriages and recently welcomed their first grandchild, Gabrielle Victoria Dean.
The Deans said their first marriages prepared them for their union.
"I prayed for a husband who would support me and make me feel like I was his queen, and God blessed me with Sam," Donna Dean said. "I even prayed that he would have gray sideburns, and Sam has gray sideburns!"
Sam Dean, as devoutly religious as his wife, had prayed for a partner to share his home and his interests. He found that in Donna.
The two attend Vermont Avenue Baptist Church and are avid volunteers. She teaches adult Sunday school; he's on the men's usher board. He's the chairman of the board of trustees; she's the secretary.
In the Kiwanis Club of Mitchellville, which they helped start, she was the founding and charter president; he was the secretary. Donna Dean was a distinguished lieutenant governor of the organization, a position that gave her responsibility over 11 clubs in Prince George's and the District.
Although they are obviously close, the Deans don't think alike on everything.
She thinks she's more introspective and he's more outgoing. He thinks she's the gregarious one and he's more reserved. She prefers surfing the Internet to watching television; he prefers winding down in front of the tube or reading a book. His favorite TV shows are comedies. She likes detectives programs, such as "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation."
The Deans proudly declare they are each other's best friends, and they are unabashedly in love. Like many successful couples, they think husbands and wives should support and respect each other and behave lovingly.
"We agreed prior to marriage that if we couldn't, after discussing a subject, agree on it, that he as the head of the household would make the decision and I would submit to it," Donna Dean said. "We've done it. There haven't been that many disagreements because we're very similar in our thoughts and beliefs."
Exum said she wants that kind of relationship when she gets married. She said she admires Donna dean for being so supportive of her husband.
'My Best Friend'
"She's obviously a very opinionated and very strong woman, but she is able to defer to her husband where it is appropriate, and that is not always easy for a black woman to do," Exum said. "There's a delicate balance you have to find, and she has found it."
Sam Dean, a native of Chicago, said he looks at his life and is amazed he has achieved so much. One of the reasons for his success is his wife, he said.
"You hear people talk about having a best friend; well she really is my best friend," he said. "We discuss everything, and it is a joy being around her. People wonder how we can be together 24 hours a day. One of the great things is that we both have the same vision and the same goal in life, and that is to provide service to mankind. We feel very strongly about it."