The Great Contributors Dinner, the signature annual fundraiser for the Dallas Arboretum, couldn’t have had better chairmen when it convened on Tuesday, November 15, to honor former Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, with a special presentation to former First Lady Laura Bush.
The evening’s chairs were Marilyn and Ben Weber, which was fitting because Marilyn is an old friend of Laura’s from their activities with the Garden Clubs of America. Marilyn explained this connection as she and Ben were greeting some of the event’s 300 or so attendees at a pre-dinner reception in the Arboretum’s A Tasteful Place pavilion.
Enjoying the reception canapes (Crab Cake with Caper Remoulade, for example) were guests including Sarah Jane and Will Francis, Joan and Alan Walne, Jane and Jim Ryan, Shalmir and Richard Johnston, Jan and Fred Hegi, Paula Lambert, Carolyn Speed and Rena Pederson, who would be interviewing Kay following the dinner. Rena said that, after talking with 250 sources, she has completed her book about a notorious, 1960s-era Dallas jewel thief—it’s tentatively titled “King of Diamonds”—and the book is now being read by an agent.
Just then Kay came sweeping into the pavilion, accompanied by her daughter Bailey Hutchison, Sam Coats and Tom Gilchrist.
Soon enough, everyone began moving toward Rosine Hall for the dinner (Poached Pear Salad, Beef Tenderloin and Chocolate Pate) and the formal program. First, though, they were welcomed to the Hall by Arboretum board Chairman Jim Ryan before being treated to a rousing, singalong rendition of “Deep in the Heart of Texas”—complete with all the hand-clapping—and then “America the Beautiful,” both songs led by Tom. He followed up “Deep in the Heart” by saying, “You all did a great job. Even you transplants out there!”
As the guests began digging into their Chocolate Pates a little later, Ben introduced Laura, who addressed the crowd from behind a lectern before formally accepting her Great Contributors Award. “I’m retired from speaking and accepting awards,” Laura said, “but I accepted tonight in order to recognize the true Great Contributor in the room, Mary Brinegar.”
The former First Lady proceeded to laud the retiring Arboretum president and CEO, noting that the Arboretum “teaches” 100,000 children each year, and “it’s especially important to teach nature at a time when most children are staying inside.” Laura also pointed out that the Arboretum has been named one of the 14 most beautiful gardens in the world and one of the best in the U.S., adding, “We have Mary Brinegar to thank for it.”
With that, Marilyn took the mic to introduce Kay—a former U.S. Senator from Texas (1993-2013) and the 22nd U.S. Permanent Representative to NATO (2017-2021). Whereupon Kay and Rena settled into comfortable chairs onstage for an informative, wide-ranging conversation. During their talk Kay would make several key points, including comments about the Russia-Ukraine war and that day’s biggest news—that a Russian missile had landed in NATO member Poland, killing at least two people and triggering fears of a wider conflict:
- “Most believe it was a mistake, that it was not planned,” Kay said of the missile that landed in Poland, “and that we should give Russia a chance to say it was a mistake.” Russian President Vladimir Putin knows that if a NATO country were deliberately attacked, “we’d be sending troops and be all in,” she added.
- Former Texas Senator “John Tower, who was a mentor of mine, was pro-NATO to the core,” Kay went on. “America must be the leader of NATO, so that [in the event of any crises] America can be the first in and assess the risks. The Europeans hide their defense spending, while we’re proud of ours, so we have to be the leader. NATO is 30 countries in the alliance speaking together, but it’s really 40 partners in all, speaking with one voice.”
- When French President Emmanuel Macron said in 2019 that NATO was brain-dead and that Europe needed to act more aggressively as a bloc, because it could no longer depend on U.S. leadership, Kay disclosed that “every ambassador was at my door that week saying, ‘Don’t let that happen!'”
- “Putin totally misjudged the strength of our alliance,” whose renewed, unified resolve is also sending a message to China, Kay continued. “We need to support Ukraine all the way. We can’t leave like we did in Afghanistan.”
- The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan was the “worst decision I can remember in my time in public life,” she said. While the U.S. had been making progress there—in terms of education for women and girls, for example—”I was sick” about the way the pullout was handled, she said.
- Regarding her takeaway from the recent midterm elections, Kay said that it’s that “people want mainstream normalcy. We’ve got terrible inflation and the policies are not addressing that. We’ll continue to have strife, but not very much togetherness, but [the midterms] showed that people are fed up with bombastic negativism.”
- Asked by Rena about the Biden administration’s overtures to countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia to produce more oil, Kay replied, “Well, we could trust Midland, Texas, to produce oil! We do it cleaner than anybody on earth.”
Kay then turned to a brief discussion of her 2014 book, “Unflinching Courage: Pioneering Women Who Shaped Texas.” The pioneering women were cultured heroes who faced great adversity but never considered themselves to be victims, she said, adding, “They faced such hardships, but with such happiness.”
To close out the evening, Ben, Marilyn and Jim formally presented the Great Contributors Award to Kay, who, like Laura before her, turned the spotlight around to shine on Mary instead. “This is the destination that people want to see,” Kay said of the Arboretum. “It’s the gem of the city, and Mary Brinegar, you built it!”