Editor’s note: During its busiest seasons, Houston’s society set was forced to deftly pivot this year, with many organizations hosting virtual events instead of in-person fêtes. While these virtual affairs admirably captured the soiree spirit (folks happily donned their formalwear at home in front of their computers), nothing quite beats the real thing. So, it was with a sense of fearlessness that some groups opted to throw in-person galas, notably, an event honoring Houston's bravest.
We look back at that function, plus some of our top society stories for 2020.
Elizabeth Stein knew she might be ridiculed, even shamed. At a time when so many were hunkered down and staying put — and mocking those who weren’t doing the same — the Houston philanthropist was tasked with chairing the annual Red Hot Gala with her husband, Alan. “Deciding to have a 2020 in-person event was carefully thought out,” she tells CultureMap, “but was risky at best — as we knew we would meet with criticism from many.”
Despite naysayers and potential blowback, the Steins carried on, inspired by the very heroes the gala was honoring: Houston firefighters. “As the date drew nearer, we knew that we needed to make it happen — but with absolutely every possible precaution in place,” she recalls. “We wanted to be an example of excellence, just as our first responders are as they head out every day to meet with the community.”
Thanks to the Steins and the organizers’ efforts, the 2020 Red Hot Gala, benefitting the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association Charitable Foundation, forged on at the Royal Sonesta Hotel. Social distancing limited guests to just over 200; previous years have seen more than 400 attendees. Strapping and wide-eyed firefighter cadets greeted guests and took temperatures at the door. No safety precaution was overlooked.
COVID accommodations included plate covers, glass covers, extra distancing between tables, and even special seating. Eager guests and sponsors enthusiastically showed their appreciation, especially when the studly and hunky firefighters walked the runway shirtless, flexing their bulging biceps and pecs to the delight of the crowd.
A reverent moment was bestowed to firefighters and Houston Fire Department staff lost this year: Senior Captain Kevin Leago, Captain Leroy Lucio, firefighter/paramedic Jerry Pacheco, firefighter Kenneth Stavinoha, arson investigator Lemuel Bruce, and Captain Tommy Searcy.
Tears were shed when honorary chair, Stephen Lubanko, shared the gripping story of his HFD rescue. Lubanko’s heart had stopped, but he was valiantly received by an EMS team. Gasps were heard across the ballroom as Lubanko was reunited on-stage with the team — one of many moments that drew a standing ovation.
Surprises (besides the shirtless heroes) came when community supporters were presented with special plaques in honor of their support. The who’s-who list of honorees included Benjamin Berg, Bobbie Nau, Joanna and Brad Marks, Troy Blakeney, and Janet and Tom Behanick. Meanwhile, community and corporate advocates Hallie Vanderhider and Renee and Alan Helfman were also presented with plaques on-stage by the Steins and Patrick “Marty” Lancton.
In all, the night raised some $400,000 for firefighter training and desperately needed equipment such as K-9 arson vehicles, PPE, chainsaws, and more. “The struggle is real — raising money for things we all thought our city provided,” notes Elizabeth Stein.
Bravery was the theme of the night, a theme exemplified by the Houston heroes who fearlessly charge into disasters and danger. Stein brushes off any praise or “brave” talk for her efforts, choosing to focus on the firefighters, many who seemed genuinely surprised by the audience’s gushing support for them at the gala.
“What a unique opportunity to see first hand the community coming out to support them,” Stein says, adding that, “2020 has been a painful year for all; the firefighters have lost many of their family — as have so many others. This was a time to come together and share some tears, but a time to celebrate all that our community has to offer in support of so many, starting with the Houston firefighters.”
Houston's top society headlines for 2020
1. Houston power couple embraces 2020 with adorable elopement and local honeymoon. Readers fell madly in love with the story of Grace Gibson and Nick Scurfield, whose wedding was just so 2020 in the best of ways.
2. Houston's Princess Maria Galitzine, a Hapsburg descendant, passes away suddenly at 31. The young princess died from a sudden cardiac aneurysm on in May, leaving behind husband Rishi Singh and her son, Maxim.
3. Houston billionaire couple gifts massive $1 million to citywide charity. Houston's benefactors, known for their $70 million gift to Memorial Park, offered another grand gift to the city.
4. Houston's 'Prince of Parties,' Jackson Hicks, dies at 73. The always-elegant, A-list caterer to Houston’s most posh parties, passed away suddenly on in April at 73.
5. Houston Astros fan favorite Alex Bregman ties the knot in surprise wedding. Known for surprising fans with hefty cash gifts, Astros star Bregman quietly married fiancée Reagan Howard in December.
6. Global pop-dance duo to hold court at Tilman Fertitta's swanky annual Galveston gala. Partiers were abuzz with the news that the global duo would be playing the San Luis Salute.
7. West University's society set goes medieval at cherished annual parks soiree. Some 600 West University Place neighbors and friends gathered for “A Medieval Knight in the Park,” the 29th-annual Park Lovers’ Ball.
8. Tony Danza holds class at prestigious River Oaks school luncheon. The Taxi and Who’s the Boss star wowed a crowd at St. John’s School with his frank, deeply personal, and relatable tale of becoming a teacher in Philadelphia.
9. Houston's Junior League announces new leadership for 2020-2021. Known as one of the friendliest faces on the society scene, Rachel Regan officially accepted the title of incoming Junior League president from outgoing president, Jayne Sheehy Johnston.
10. Houston society queen Lynn Wyatt to host dazzling virtual fall fundraiser. Kudos to the Memorial Hermann Foundation for inspiring Houston society queen Lynn Wyatt to co-chair its Razzle Dazzle luncheon in October, which raises awareness of breast cancer.