Let’s be brutally honest. The very sound of Interfaith Auxiliary Luncheon creates images of sitting up straight and being rather solemn. Start to rethink that idea. On Tuesday, April 1, Interfaith Housing Coalition somehow managed to launch its first ever Interfaith Auxiliary Luncheon fundraiser without a hint of huffiness or starch. The result was standing ovations (no surprise) and a vast majority of LWL (Ladies Who Lunch) critiquing the event as, “This was the best one ever!”
Darn it. They may have been right.
However, it didn’t exactly appear to be any different than most lunches initially. The reception started with a chill in the air because of the late season drop in temps and the energetic A/C in the Dallas Country Club lobby and ballroom. For once, the lobby fireplace looked like mittens on a snow day.
And some folks admitted that they didn’t spot many of the usuals. But that changed with the arrival of Honorary Chair Robyn Conlon and her clan (husband Don Conlon, son Keith Conlon and his bride Megan Conlon and son Kevin Conlon and his wife Marybeth Conlon) and Co-Chairs Amy Hegi and Libby Hegi and their crew (parent-in-laws Jan and Fred Hegi and Amy’s husband/Interfaith Board Member Peter Hegi and Libby’s husband/Interfaith Board of Directors Chair Brian Hegi).
Sure, in the crowded lobby, the predictable “oops” of trays of wineglasses on the floor created a cozier condition, but that was relieved by the ballroom doors opening for the sold-out event.
Still it took time to settle the guests like Nancy Carter, Linda Secrest, Claire Manigold, Beth Thoele, Caren Kline, Cara French, Connie O’Neill, Jennifer and Joe Clifford, Patti Flowers, Libby Hunt, Louise Backa, Alicia Wood and Tiffany Divis in their seats, and there was “no Hoda” in sight. The “Hoda” was Emmy-award-winning NBC Today’s Co-Host Hoda Kotb, who was to be the keynote speaker. Gee, did she miss her flight that morning from NYC to DFW? Nope! She finally appeared all in white and briefly took her place next to KXAS’s Meredith Land, who was the day’s emcee.
Hoda had hardly put her napkin in her lap than she was working the room like a presidential candidate while others ate. It was easy to note her latest table visit by the whoops and hollers arising around the room. As if the stop-and-chat wasn’t enough, she earned major points by posing for group photos at the tables. Even the most proper types dropped their forks, jumped up from their chairs and gathered around the Hoda for a group photo.
One of the chaps in the crowd looked mystified by this excitement. But he also admitted that he usually was at the office when Hoda and her co-host Kathie Lee Gifford were exchanging news of the day. But he soon learned the reason for this gal-pal rally.
Even when Meredith came to the podium to get things goings, Hoda continued her “table service.” As Meredith introduced the Hegi co-chairs, a cheer erupted from the back of the room as Hoda hit another table.
Amy and Libby thanked all for attending and pointed to Robyn especially for her support. Then Amy told of her first encounter with Interfaith and homelessness. It was Christmas when she was a youngster and her mom bundled the kids up and delivered a Christmas tree to help settle a family in their new home. When Amy asked why the family hadn’t brought their own tree from their old home, her mother explained there had been no old home.
Interfaith CEO Kimberly Williams explained the mission and announced that they had tweaked the organization’s name just slightly. From this day on, it would be known as Interfaith Family Services. But its mission to “empower families in crisis to break the cycle of poverty” would remain the same.
To provide a firsthand report on how Interfaith had made a life-changing difference, Kimberly had Shemika Hopson come to the podium and tell her story. The diminutive mother perfectly blended humor, confidence, gratitude and a don’t-say-no spirit that hadn’t been heard in a while. She had been living in a car with her two kids, but thanks to the guidance and support by Interfaith, she had grown emotionally and financially resulting in her buying her own home and landing a job and promotions.
In addition to a standing O, Shemika hardly returned to her chair before Hoda was there with her arms around the young mother. Her talk could have easily ended the program and it would have been the kiss of success for the first-time fundraiser.
Hoda was up next and admitted that it was gonna be tough to follow Shemika, but she shouldn’t have been concerned. If anything, Shemika and Hoda were the perfect pairing.
Immediately Hoda took a panoramic photo of the sold-out crowd. Then she explained that Kathie Lee had been on vacation for the past week. Hoda then recorded the guests saying with big smiles, “Welcome back, Kathie Lee.”
After putting her smartphone down, Hoda told how she got her start as a TV reporter. Blending a perfect balance of self-deprecating humor and stellar storytelling, she took the audience through her countless rejections, embarrassments and OMG success of her life. In landing her first job, she borrowed her mother’s car and told how she was going to Richmond, Virginia, for a job interview knowing that it was hers. When she arrived at the station, she looked around and decided where she would sit and which fella she would date. The news director looked at her tape for less than a couple of minutes and told her that she wasn’t ready for his station, but he did know a news director in Roanoke who might have an opening. A bit surprised but determined, she set off to Roanoke to meet the news director with the same results — not quite ready. Her thought was “Who in the hell is not ready for Roanoke?” But he told her about still another news director in Memphis who might hire her, but he was flying out the next day, so she had to hurry over to Memphis to catch him. Same thing happened there. This happened more than 22 times as she drove from station to station and city to city feeling more defeated each time. Somehow, the way Hoda told the story, everyone in the audience identified with the feeling of rejection but laughed with her in recalling the journey.
Really discouraged and tired after ten days of rejection, she found herself lost in Mississippi and spied a sign promoting the local CBS station — “Greenville, our eye is on you.” She took it as a sign, walked into the station and presented her muchly rejected tape to WXVT TV News Director Stan Sandroni, who admitted that just the day before he had been the sports director. He told “Hilda” to come on in. As he watched the tape, Hoda was shocked to see him “watch the whole, terrible, horrible tape to the end.” He told her, “Hilda, I like what I see.” She was shocked and said, “You do?” He hired her, giving her the first chance in her TV reporting career. “This guy, Stan Sandroni, changed the course of my life.”
Later in her days at the station, Stan came into the newsroom and asked, “Who has a blazer?” Hoda volunteered that she did. He said, “Oh, good, you need to anchor the news because Anne [the female anchor] was sick.” She had never anchored, but she knew there was a teleprompter and it was a one-anchor newscast. She looked at the teleprompter that read, “Good evening, I’m Hoda Kotb. Anne Martin is out sick.” The red light went on. The guy cued her. She said, “Good evening, I’m Anne Martin.” The rest of the show was downhill — “When I mess up, I keep on messing up. I can’t stop it. It was like I was riding the toboggan down the mountain screaming.”
She knew she was going to be fired the next day, so she headed to the grocery in search of comfort food. Instead in the ice cream aisle, “A woman comes over and she looks crazy. Her hair was all crazy and she had one or two teeth and she goes ‘Oh, my God, I just seen you TV and I am so sorry for you.’”
The next day Stan said he had seen what she did and it was pretty horrible, but “Anne’s sick again,” so he gave a second chance.
Years later after winning awards and climbing the TV news ladder, the folks at 30 Rock asked the on-air talent to bring someone to Studio One A who changed the course of their lives. Hoda’s pick was Stan. He walked in and said, “Oh, my God, Al Roker! Matt Lauer!”
Hoda’s message to the audience: It only takes one person to change your life.
Editor’s note: What Hoda didn’t tell the audience was Stan died less than 18 months ago at the age of 64 from a heart attack.
She then told of a state trooper who dropped everything during the Katrina evacuation to locate a child who had been placed on a bus without his mother. They were reunited in Houston.
It was also during Katrina that she was in a car sweating through her clothes and her producer told her to change her shirt to do a stand up. She took her shirt off and “was sitting there in her soaking wet bra talking to myself, talking to God. And just at that exact same moment, a bus pulls up right next to me. I looked up and there are these guys on the bus and they started banging on the windows and saying, ‘Hey, news lady, we see your titties.’ I so needed that.”
And then there was the meeting with the intern when a phone call came in from her doctor telling her that she had breast cancer. It was obvious the news was not good. Not knowing what the doctor had told Hoda, the intern asked if she wanted to be alone. Hoda said yes. But before the intern left, she asked for a favor. Hoda agreed, thinking it was to exchange numbers or take a picture. The intern asked if she could hug Hoda. “I remember looking at this kid, who knew nothing about me. But that was exactly what I needed right there and right then. This kid just wrapped her arms around me and I was like crying into this intern’s arms and she left probably wondering, ‘Who’s the crazy?’”
Following her breast surgery, Matt Lauer called her with an assignment to go to Ireland. It was pretty soon after the surgery, but her doctor gave her permission. She admitted that she felt very vulnerable and on the way home she wasn’t feeling very well and was having second thoughts on whether it had been a good idea to have taken the trip. Next to her on the plane was a man, who asked, “How are you doing?” Despite Hoda’s obviously wanting to left alone, he continued trying to strike up a conversation with her. Eventually he got his way and they started talking. He asked, “What is that on your arm?” She explained that it was compression sleeve due to a procedure. He persisted asking her what kind of procedure. She finally fessed up that she’d had breast cancer and hoped that he wouldn’t get off of the plane telling people that he’d sat next to a girl who had had breast cancer. To that he asked, “What is wrong with you? Breast cancer is just a part of you. It is like going to college, getting married or working at NBC. Let me give you some advice and you can go to sleep.” He then gave her some advice “that I never forgot, ever. He said, ‘Don’t hog your journey. It’s not just for you.’ Right, Shemika?”
All eyes in the ballroom went straight to Shemika.
“He said, “Think how many people you can help right now. His name is Ken Duane.” That conversation put her on the road to promoting breast cancer awareness and taught her three things:
- Life has margins. There is a beginning and end, so she stopped wasting time. “I hold so tightly to the things I love and got rid of the things that I didn’t love. So, now I’m divorced.”
- If you survive anything big and you’re still standing at the end, then you get four words: “You can’t scare me.”
- The way you spend your days is the way you spend your life.
In closing, Hoda told of a random act of kindness. She got in the elevator at her apartment building and there was “this girl who looks kind of weird with an Oscar the Grouch hat pulled down.” She also had a box of cupcakes that Hoda asked about. The girl told her they were salted caramel. Hoda remarked that they smelled great and the girl told her that they had come from the bakery in Brooklyn, “30 or 40 minutes away.” The girl departed and that was it, or so Hoda thought. The next day the door man handed over a box that someone had left with a note that read, “Hi, I was the girl wearing the Oscar the Grouch hat and I met you in the elevator. You were admiring my cupcakes, but they were both spoken for. I had a little extra time, so I went to Brooklyn and got you two more.”
Hoda said, “Can you believe she did that? That’s a random act of kindness that can change your life. Now, that girl in the Oscar the Grouch hat doesn’t know that I told her story at a great speech in Dallas.”
Despite the clock in the ballroom ticking, no one wanted her to stop. Hoda was their new, absolutely BFF. And what does an audience give their BFF speaker? A standing O.
Later at a meet-and-greet that took place just before 2 p.m. in the Founders’ Room, Hoda hadn’t changed one iota. When she spotted the Louboutin fringed stilettos on Megan Conlon, she couldn’t contain herself. It was discovered that the shoes had been a V-day gift to Megan from her husband Keith. Upon seeing the national TV celebrity’s excitement about the footwear, Conlon brother Kevin told Keith that he was getting the other Conlon men in trouble — “I just got Marybeth flowers.”
PS — Hoda was schedule to be the commencement speaker at Tulane University Saturday, May 14, but some students circulated a petition saying, “Given the amount of money, work and passion we have poured into our educational careers at Tulane, we think we deserve better than this. Hoda Kotb is hardly an inspirational figure, and despite the fact that she has had a successful career in journalism, we feel that we deserve a more recognizable and more prominent figure than her.”
Days later the petition was replaced by one supporting the choice. So, Hoda is still on for the event and who knows? Perhaps if those naysayers open their ears and minds they just might discover that Hoda is that person of change in their lives.