When the Touchdown Club holds its 51st annual awards dinner at the Sheraton Washington Hotel tonight, U.S. Rep. Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.) will not be there, but her spirit lingers.
Schroeder turned up with her husband for the 41st annual dinner a decade ago, clutching a pair of tickets given her by a fellow representative who was unable to attend. She was looking for a big night out, but instead got the boot.
"I had no idea it was men only," she said last week. "We got all dressed up, we hired a baby sitter. My husband is a big sports fan and I thought since he went to events with me all the time, here was a chance to do something for him. But when we got there it was very clear we were persona non grata. They said, 'Are you leaving, or do we have to carry you out?' "
Washington publicist Charlie Brotman was general chairman that year and recalled the mess. "I was sitting between Henry Kissinger and Bob Hope at the head table," said Brotman, "when someone came to me and said, 'We have a problem. There is a woman at the door in evening clothes and she wants to come in. What are we going to do?' "
A few days later Brotman got a letter from another Schroeder colleague, House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill, asking the same question.
It only took three years and three months to get an answer. In March 1979, the Touchdown Club admitted its first woman member, Lela Foreman, an official of the Communications Workers of America who played football growing up in Oklahoma.
Foreman isn't just one of several women attending tonight's $125-a-plate dinner, which honors national and local sports figures, she is general chairman of the event, the first woman to have the job. And 10 days from now, barring any unexpected hitch, she will be installed as the first woman president of the Touchdown Club.
Schroeder is delighted. "Justice is done," she said.
So, who is Lela Foreman and how did she come to sit in this spot? "I'm just an Okie from Muskogee," she said. "I guess I've been a tomboy all my life."
Club members say Foreman's organizational skills and willingness to work on volunteer projects put her in line for elected office.
"She has executive ability, she has guts, she stayed in there," said Joe Holman, who has participated in club activities since the 1930s.
"She's done anything any guy could," said Barney Shankman, a 35-year club member. "She's participated, she's very sports-minded, she's familiar with football and she's a good administrator."
Foreman is a widow and grandmother who moved to Washington in 1975 to be women's director of the CWA after a long career in the telephone business in Oklahoma. She started as a telephone operator in Muskogee in the old "number please" days, she said, and worked her way up to head a 900-member union local.
"I know how to fight," said Foreman, puffing a cigarette at an office in the club bar and restaurant on L Street NW, "but fortunately we don't have to do that here. I'm involved with the club because I like it, and when I came in I brought some leadership skills."
She said when she first came to town she frequently had lunch at the club as a guest of her coworkers at CWA, many of whom were members. In those days, women were allowed in for lunch only. She said as a lifelong fan of the Oklahoma Sooners and a converted Redskins rooter, she enjoyed the chatter and the ambiance, but felt awkward always being a guest.
"I wanted to take them to lunch, too," she said.
So, 10 minutes after membership was opened to women, her application and check were in club officers' hands.
Foreman has taken vacation from her real job for the last week to have time to shepherd along tonight's banquet. Among those to be honored are California Angels owner Gene Autry, Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton, Redskins Neal Olkewicz and Russ Grimm, Bullet Jeff Malone, Penn State Coach Joe Paterno, Mike Gartner of the Capitals, film actress Goldie Hawn (as a "local schoolgirl who made good"), Maryland Republican Sen. Charles McC. Mathias and Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes.
Foreman is counting on a big turnout, she said, and of course the door now is open to all.