Q: What do you get when you cross a notorious prankster, an inventive team of conspirators, more than 2,300 club members with remarkable discretion, and one of the most beloved employees ever to grace The University Club of Washington, DC’s esteemed “Mansion on 16th Street”?
A: The greatest surprise in University Club history, of course!
On Saturday, January 28, more than 200 members gathered for a special event to honor The University Club of Washington, DC’s Taft Dining Room doyenne, Laurence Belanger, who has served as a dedicated member of the UClub team since May 3, 1960—and has no immediate plans to retire! At 95, “Miss Laurence,” as she is affectionately known, demonstrates an exceptional work ethic; for the past 56 years she has rarely missed a day of work and displays remarkable punctuality and professionalism. Renowned for her warmth, graciousness and courtesy, Miss Laurence greets every guest with a welcoming smile and exhibits a unique interest in the concerns of others, both in her professional and private affairs. It comes as no surprise that a staff member as exceptional as Miss Laurence would merit a celebration for her service. What is surprising is the lengths club members were willing to go to in order to keep that celebration a secret.
It all started with a casual lunch in the club’s Pershing Grille. University Club Foundation Board Secretary Tony Englert and board member Tim Sullivan were discussing Miss Laurence’s upcoming birthday and her long tenure with the club. At some point the conversation turned to brainstorming ways to honor Miss Laurence for her many years of service. They discussed and dismissed a few possibilities before settling on something that had never been done at the UClub before: a surprise party. But how to keep Miss Laurence from finding out? Would it really be possible to keep 2,300-plus club members from spoiling the surprise?
They needed a cover story that would keep Miss Laurence in the dark until the night of the event. And thus, “The Judge Loren A. Smith Roast” was born.
Sullivan reached out to long-time club member and notorious prankster, The Honorable Judge Loren A. Smith, who agreed to lend his name to the elaborate ruse that would serve as a cover story. Members would receive an invitation to the celebration for Miss Laurence, a winter carnival themed event, in tribute to the city of her birth, Québec (host of the largest winter carnival in the world, the annual Le Carnaval de Québec). The invitation would outline the details of the actual celebration, and would also explain the cover story, that the event would be a roast of Judge Smith. The invitation, which would include a cover sheet with a caricature of Judge Smith winking conspiratorially and a simple question, “Can you keep a secret?” would swear members to secrecy and explain that, with the exception of the initial invitation, all future communications, advertisements, etc., would reference the fictional Judge Loren A. Smith Roast.
The Host Committee, chaired by Sullivan, quickly got to work planning the event. Entertainment included dancing and music provided by a 24-piece big band, a performance by a renowned men’s acappella group, a piano sing-along, caricature artists, an ice carving demonstration by a 2016 BP World Ice Art Champion ice carver, and more. University Hall would be decorated with twinkling glass globes, live evergreens, a full-size ice castle and snow drifts. In the Governors Room, snowflakes would drift through the air as guests feasted on Canadian-themed cuisine prepared by the club’s award-winning executive chef. The Pershing Grille would serve as “The Lodge,” a cozy spot where members could relax in deep leather chairs and enjoy a mug of hot cocoa and s’mores.
While the Host Committee was planning the real event to honor Miss Laurence, they were also simultaneously producing a registration SPRING 2017 Club Director 29 page, communications and posters for the roast ruse. To add authenticity, roasters were approached to lend their name to the event, and members received multiple communications, which billed the event as a “Red Herring Production” and included the winking caricature of Judge Smith, imploring members to, “join your Foundation for an unforgettable night, full of mischief and diversion, as we honor someone who has been a beloved fixture at The University Club of Washington, DC for many years.”
Finally, and most importantly, members of staff, including the unwitting guest of honor, were approached and told that they would be part of the roast program. They would be responsible for handing props to Judge Smith during the presentation. Miss Laurence was agreeable, as always, to serving as a staff “Vanna White” to Judge Smith’s “Pat Sajak,” and was charged with handing Judge Smith a mysterious package, neatly wrapped in craft paper and tied with a large black bow.
Several months passed and the excitement in the air was electric. Members whispered about the “upcoming roast” in the locker room and conspiratorially nudged each other as they passed notices advertising the event. Some would position themselves within Miss Laurence’s earshot and excitedly discuss the upcoming event and how nice it was that the club was finally planning to recognize the many contributions of Judge Smith. As the Foundation’s executive director, I was inundated with phone calls asking, “Does she know?”
Surprisingly, I was always able to answer with a confident, “no.” On the night of the event, Miss Laurence showed up to work her usual shift in the Taft Dining Room, allotting time to come upstairs and fulfill her role in the roast presentation.
Around 8 p.m., the band took a break and the crowd gathered in University Hall for the roast presentation. Sullivan made some opening remarks, noting that this roast would be a little different, in that the roastee, Judge Smith, would be allowed to make remarks before the roast began. Judge Smith took to the podium, and had the crowd roaring as he regaled them with a few jokes and took a puff of a giant cigar. Then the moment of “the reveal” arrived. Miss Laurence approached the podium and handed Judge Smith the mysterious wrapped package. He unwrapped it, revealing a caricature of himself winking and joked that the gentleman in the picture was certainly worthy of such a distinguished honor, but that he knew of someone who was even more worthy of such an honor. With a flourish, Judge Smith turned the picture around to reveal another picture—a photo of Miss Laurence from her early days at the club! Attendees roared “surprise” and a stunned and delighted Miss Laurence beamed as she realized that more than 200 club members had shown up to celebrate her service to the club.
Club President Fern O’Brian, Foundation President Scott Beck and General Manager David Conroy gave speeches extolling Miss Laurence’s virtues. Miss Laurence was presented with an antique gold and amethyst brooch and Foundation Vice President Barry Hart read proclamations from the D.C. Mayor and the City Council thanking Miss Laurence for her service and stating that January 28, 2017, had been officially declared, “Miss Laurence Belanger Day” in the District. Finally, the band began to play “Hello Miss Laurence,” a tribute song to the tune of “Hello Dolly” penned by talented club member Dr. Kenneth Sparks. The room was filled with the voices of members and staff whose lives Miss Laurence has touched over the course of her many years with The University Club of Washington, DC.
As the crowd closed in to offer congratulations and share laughs and memories with Miss Laurence, two things were abundantly clear: First, that a life of devoted service to a private club does not go unappreciated or uncelebrated. And second, that the members of The University Club of Washington, DC can, in fact, keep a secret!
Krista McDaniel is the executive director of The University Club Foundation. She can be reached at [email protected] Read about Miss Laurence’s experiences at the University Club and why it’s been an important part of her life in the “First Person” column, page 11.