Lyndon Johnson hasn’t been president since 1969, but his influence in Washington was on display some 40 years later at an annual fundraiser Thursday night here at Villa Firenze, the residence of the ambassador of Italy.
That sprawling estate in Northwest D.C. hosted the annual “Country Barbecue” fundraiser for the city’s Children’s Hearing and Speech Center, described by numerous attendees as one of the best-kept secrets in town. It’s the only fundraiser for the center, and while the amount varies, it usually brings in about $40,000 a year. Wendy Makins, who has been a regular at the event since the early 1970s put it this way: “We’ve funded things they never would’ve been able to do.”
The annual tradition has been around since the LBJ era when the Texas-born president held a White House dinner to introduce Washington to “real Texas barbecue.” Food at that party was driven in from his home state at the president’s orders.
A guest of that LBJ party in the 1960s convinced the owner of Villa Firenze — before it was sold to the Italians — to host a similar Texas BBQ style event in her backyard to support the center, whose director Dr. Sheela Stuart, says pays for “very expensive” prevention screenings and even hearing aids for deaf children.
The event has since been held every June since LBJ brought BBQ to Washington, even after Italy obtained ownership of the estate.
Stuart said the center was founded more than 45 years ago. Doctors there form long-term relationships with patients, she said, and as a result, she’s been to more birthdays, bar mitzvahs and weddings than she can count. They provide early detection services to more than 11,000 children with hearing speech and language disorders a year. Specialized services include cochlear implants for children, and alternative communication lessons for children with severe disorders. “We”ll be able to support kids whose families can’t afford the services,” Stuart said.
As for the event that largely finances the services, like Makins, a good many of the partygoers have been regulars to Villa Firenze for years. The outdoor soiree almost feels like it’s in the English countryside, rather than inside the District, and it’s also very preppy: The guys wear brightly colored summer pants and sports coats, while the ladies don vivid floral cocktail dresses.
“There is a totally unsubstantiated rumor that the deed to the estate requires the party be hosted there annually,” said Ian O’Neil, who has attended the annual event for about 15 years. He’s now the chairman of the board at the center. “Regardless, the Italian ambassador has graciously played host for decades.”