Two years ago, the Breath of Life Gala, the annual Washington fundraiser devoted to fighting cystic fibrosis, grossed about $300,000.
Then Don Wood took over. He had a businessman's fervor, the resiliency of a survivor who was once fired by Donald Trump and a personal interest.
He can still see Rachel, at age 5, playing soccer. See her sprinting across the field and into the woods, where she "threw up, turned around to make sure no one saw her, wiped off her face" -- Wood pauses here, brushing the back of his forearm across his mouth as she did -- "and ran back to the game."
He beams. "The boys? They'd have been like, 'Mommy, Mommy, Mommy. I don't feel good.' " But not his Rachel, who is now 8. She may have been fighting cystic fibrosis since she was 8 months old. She may have to endure 30 minutes every morning and night in the vibrating vest that shakes life-threatening mucus loose from her lungs. She may have to inhale antibiotics and swallow more than a dozen pills every day.
But "she is tough," Wood says, pausing slightly. "She's going to need to be."
Heading the Breath of Life Gala was a big commitment, and Wood, chief executive of Rockville's Federal Realty Investment Trust, whose holdings include Bethesda Row, said he would do it on one condition: "Let's do it right."
Wood spent his time with Trump in the casino business, and he decided to up the ante. He moved the event to a weekend evening. Paid for big entertainment. Turned it into a large, sponsored affair.
That first year, in 2003, it netted $400,000, said Julianne Puzzo, executive director of the Metropolitan Washington Chapter of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. Wood expects tonight's $500-a-ticket (and $5,000-and-up-a-table) event at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium on Constitution Avenue NW to gross $1.2 million and net $1 million. Michel Richard of Citronelle is the evening's guest chef. R&B crooner Lou Rawls is the entertainment. The honoree is Mills Corp. Chief Executive Laurence Siegel. More than 600 are expected.
"The event has really just exploded," Puzzo said, crediting Wood with working his extensive business contacts in the Washington region to grow the gala. "He's really good at leveraging all of his relationships . . . to make a difference."
Wood, 44, grew up in Clifton, N.J., the son of an auto parts salesman and a legal secretary. He started Don Wood Lawncare when he was 16 and sold it for $10,000 when he was 20. He attended Montclair State College, worked for Arthur Andersen after graduating, and in 1988, at age 28, accepted Donald Trump's $100,000-a-year offer to be chief financial officer of the yet-to-be-opened Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City.
It was supposed to be a dream job. But by the time of the opening -- which was attended by Trump, the governor of New Jersey and Michael Jackson -- the project was exposed as a disaster.
"We weren't ready," said Wood, a tall, lanky man in hip, rectangular eyeglasses. Machines didn't work. Money wasn't accounted for. A few days later, he was carried out of the casino on a stretcher to be treated for exhaustion.
According to John R. O'Donnell's book "Trumped!: The Inside Story of the Real Donald Trump -- His Cunning Rise and Spectacular Fall," which Wood keeps on his office bookshelf, Trump bellowed about getting rid of him. "Was that [expletive, referring to Wood] fired?" he shouted. The next part, on Page 280, Wood read out loud:
When assured that Wood would be reassigned as soon as possible, Trump "flew into a rage. 'No! I want him fired! I don't want to see his [expletive] face in this building again!' "
"Well," Wood said, leaning back in his chair. "It was hell. It was absolute hell." But he learned "it wasn't the end of the world." He has become, he said, "intimidated by no one."
He also met his wife, Stacey, at the Taj Mahal, where she was the financial controller -- the greatest thing to come out of that venture, he said. They married and 12 years ago had a boy they named Ian. Jason arrived two years later. And eight years ago, they had twins: Kevin and Rachel.
Soon, they noticed that Kevin was growing and Rachel was not. When she was 8 months old, they got the diagnosis: cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease that produces an abnormally thick, sticky mucus that clogs the lungs and leads to life-threatening infections in the 30,000 affected children and adults in the United States.
Without a cure, she isn't likely to live past 30.
The family moved to Great Falls in 1998. Wood worked his way up to the top at Federal Realty, which also owns Pentagon Row and Rockville's plazas: Congressional, Federal and Mid-Pike.
Tonight, Wood will play a slide show of Rachel living her normal life: in her pink ballerina's tutu; snuggling her puppy in the leaves; reading the book "Peculiar Zoo" while holding onto a teddy bear; ferociously going for the ball on the soccer field.
"Childhood first, disease second. That's the way we continue to treat Rachel," Stacey Wood said.
They will show a video of parents and CF children. "60 Minutes" correspondent Scott Pelley will emcee.
And Wood will give a speech. He has it in front of him, on the office conference table. As he starts to read, he stretches out his legs, taps his right foot and tucks his hands between his knees:
"A couple of months ago, Rachel . . . had been coughing a lot at school and, this particular day, she began to cough up blood, and she was scared to death. She went to the nurse."
After resting for a while, she returned to class, where another girl "asked her about her cough, and Rachel told her she had cystic fibrosis." The little girl told Rachel that "having cystic fibrosis meant you were going to die soon."
She came home from school that day crying. Rachel went upstairs and closed the door to her room, and when Wood got home from work, he went up to talk with her. She described what the girl had said, and then, Wood continues, nearing the end of his speech, "through tears and from under her pillow, Rachel just looked up to me and said, 'Daddy, I don't want to die.' "
He looks up. The speech is well-practiced, with all the right inflections and pauses, but still, he looks momentarily shaken. He pauses, then composes himself.
"But having said that -- she's tough as nails." He pounds once on the table.
"And you'd love her."