this one's for the kids
Houston's patron saint of kids in need Laura Ward stages record-shattering $4.2M Children’s Charity gala
(Editor’s note: Not many nonprofits and their CEOs can raise more than $4 million in a single night for local kids. But, not every CEO is the esteemed Laura Ward. We look back on a historic night and show — onstage and behind the scenes — that only Ward could put on for Houston’s elite and ultimately, for deserving Houston children.)
Peace, Love, and pink leather pants
Tilman Fertitta (as he does) cuts a path through an interlocked, elbow-to-elbow crowd as he strolls through the buzzing Oak Room, the uber-exclusive, members-only, A-lister club in his palatial Post Oak Hotel. As posh partiers politely part ways to let Houston’s most headline-grabbing billionaire pass by, he stops only to high-five a friend and grab a piece of pizza on the way to the private dining room. “Big night,” he declares to us with his casual “what’s up” head nod. “Biiiiiig night. Yeah, we did it.”
Congratulations are being exchanged at the Oak Room’s jam-packed bar and tables, as high-ups and board members of Houston Children’s Charity — Fertitta is chairman of the board — raise very-high-priced glasses to the nonprofit’s “Peace, Love, Rock & Roll” gala that just ended downstairs in the Post Oak’s ballroom.
The Oak Room vibe is even more electric than usual with news that the annual HCC fete — this year with a retro, ’60s theme that saw notable revelers in looks ranging from psychedelic, hippie rocker chic to Rat Pack — just shattered records with the most funds raised in its history. And so, the late-night energy is loud and raucous, between the college football game on TV and after-partiers and regulars whooping and laughing.
All the while, an elegant, dark-haired woman sits quietly in the corner, an old-guard picture of refinement in black with pink floral accents against the glittery rocker shirts and dresses many around her are sporting. Scrolling meticulously through her phone and ignoring the feast she ordered for the table, Laura Ward, HCC’s longtime president and CEO, finally gets confirmation of how much the gala she chaired — alone and without the usual co-rainmakers – finally raised: a jaw-dropping $4.2 million.
With that, Ward puts down her phone, breathes a sigh of relief, and allows herself a first sip of the icy martini sitting in front of her. “Well,” she says with her trademark raised eyebrow and a genteel drawl and wit that seems straight out of Steel Magnolias, “I didn’t wear pink leather pants for nothing.”
No, Laura, you most certainly didn’t.
The queen calls a rockin’ record breaker – ahead of showtime
Why would Ward mention her choice of pants on a night where many of the more than 700 gala guests had planned their themed attire for at least a month? The adventurous, pink leather look symbolizes the lengths the tireless Ward, Houston’s unofficial patron saint of Houston kids in need, will go to execute her annual gala.
This is, after all, a Houston’s best-dressed honoree and Woman of Distinction who is always a picture of understated, couture elegance — and yet, who once wore tennis shoes to a recent HCC gala (as we reported), just to ensure she stopped and greeted every single one of the more than 100 tables. So while the stretchy pink leather pants might be a stretch for the rarefied Ward, her hot pink paid off.
Perhaps the only thing bolder than her choice of leathery attire was Ward’s bold prediction — in July — to us that she would somehow hit $4 million, despite not having even one co-chair to lean on for fundraising, handling the three major ’60s rock acts — Gary Puckett & The Union Gap, The Association, and Herman’s Hermits lead singer Peter Noone — performing at the event, and all the other headaches needed to host a two-comma affair.
“My birthday present to myself is raising $4 million,” she told CultureMap during the scorching summer, without the slightest note of doubt, “and I won't stop short of doing it.”
“Good evening, friends...”
And now, back to the gala: The deep, rich, bass tones that marked Dave Ward’s nightly TV news greeting boomed throughout the Post Oak ballroom, stopping some in their tracks. Could Dave Ward, the most iconic news anchor in Texas history and Laura’s proud husband, be emceeing again? (The charming ABC13 newsman and Houston’s version of Walter Cronkite hosted many an HCC gala for his doting wife for some 20 years.)
Sadly, Dave Ward would not preside over the evening, but having her legendary husband’s signature “Good evening, friends” intro as a welcome to the crowd was just one of the twists Laura Ward had up her black and pink sleeves.
Tilman's big idea and peace — for all
Fertitta, sporting his familiar black suit and black T-shirt, explained the three-band concept in his opening remarks. “Laura called me almost in tears and said, ‘What are we going to do? We can't get a band — everybody I talked to is at least a half a million dollars,’” he explained. Fertitta, always one to think out of the biggest box, had an idea: three classic bands instead of one in one hour, 20 minutes.
HCC board member Gary Becker’s welcome was a poignant twist. Decked out like a late-’60s tie-dyed rocker (his wig was more for effect; Becker’s naturally long brown locks are always Guitar Hero-ready), Becker played to the night’s ’60 theme by asking the 712 in attendance to flash the peace sign.
But rather than play to retro schtick, Becker tied the event to the current war raging in the Middle East. “Peace is hard to come by,” he reminded the audience. “Right now, children — Jewish children, Palestinian children with no skin in the game — are suffering. And right now, children right here are suffering, too.” Punctuating Becker’s message was a slideshow behind him of Houston special kids in need and their loving, but often beleaguered, parents.
“If [anyone] can deliver $4 million,” Becker added, “it’s this crowd...and Laura Ward.” Rallying to the do-it-for-the-kids, do-it-for-Laura message, the crowd responded with rousing applause.
Another twist: having charismatic, celeb Houston attorney Tony Buzbee, looking dapper in a Rat Pack-styled tuxedo and wide bow tie, serve as humble — and funny — pitchman. Urging guests to purchase specially equipped vans for special needs children for $50,000 each, the courtroom commander channeled a standup comic. “You can’t ride around in half a van!” he chastised bidders who stopped short at $25,000. “Look, I gotta make Mom happy,” he pleaded, referring to Ward (who, like any good mom, shook her head). “I was hired to beg you — and I’m getting paid nothing!”
His efforts netted 35 vans — already a feat. But when Laura Ward took the stage and asked for even more donations, deep-pocketed bidders had no choice. (In social circles, it’s well known that no one can actually say no to Ward. One wonders what she could do in Congress.)
A generous boost from the Fant family added 10 vans to the gala fleet, marking a historic $2,250,000 and 45 vans for children and families who desperately need them.
Speaking of vehicles, car enthusiasts revved up for a 2024 Porsche Cayenne, courtesy of Porsche of West Houston and Porsche River Oaks, eagerly presented by HCC board member Maria Moncada Alaoui (a social star and former BMW fixture) and Robert Dale, the title sponsors.
Something Good on the dance floor
Effervescent Houston philanthropist and businesswoman Trini Mendenhall Royalty was the grateful “Lifetime of Giving” Award honoree of the night for her community efforts and work via her Trini and O.C. Mendenhall Foundation. Graciously thanking Ward and the audience,” she kickstarted the party with her gleeful closing: “I’ll see you on the dance floor!”
A perfect cue for the night’s epic entertainment: three huge ’60s bands on three stages. While none attending could walk away forgetting the plight of Houston’s underprivileged, orphaned, and special needs kids, it was easy to celebrate HCC’s $4.2 million record-breaker (the growing tally brilliantly displayed on a big screen — kudos to Ward for that savvy move) with unforgettable jams like “Something Good,” “Young Girl,” and “Never My Love,” from Noone, Gary Puckett & the Union Gap, and The Association.
Like the most addicting of concerts, partiers simply couldn’t leave the hotel, hanging at the Post Oak’s various bars and wine rooms, the Oak Room, and even booking rooms for the night.
History in the books, those in the know wonder just how can Laura Ward possibly top a three-band, three-stage, $4.2 million gala next year.
No telling, but we’ll bet a pair of pink leather pants that if she calls her shot again, the patron saint of Houston kids in need will shatter another record in 2024.
- 0054: Trini Mendenhall, Philip Royalty
- 0089: Trini Mendenhall, Laura Ward, Maria Moncada Alaoui, Robert Dale - 0169: Laura Ward, Youval Meicler
- 0084: Olivia Jordan, Laura Ward, District Attorney Kim Ogg - 0122: Senator John Whitmire, Laura Ward
- 0143: Tilman Fertitta, Laura Ward
- 0140: Laura Ward, Rachelle M. Rowe
Rainbow-hued laser lights criss crossed the ballroom of the Post Oak Hotel while an energized crush of a record 715 strong sashayed in for the throwback-themed gala that saw multiple records broken for Houston Children’s Charity. Single-handedly chairing the “Peace, Love, Rock & Roll” costume affair, Laura Ward, HCC president and CEO, led the bash to a record $4.2 million in proceeds. That includes a whopping $2,250,000 raised for the record 45 vans for families of handicapped children.
We have to add high-profile attorney and city council candidate Tony Buzbee‘s role in encouraging purchase of the vans as he took the stage along with Ward doing his courtroom best to persuade wealthy guests to raise their paddles. Let’s admit it, Buzbee was pretty charming at it.
One night, three impressive records for the 26th annual gala.
“I have to honestly say that I was kind of shocked,” Tilman Fertitta, Houston Children’s Charity board chairman, tells PaperCity. “Laura did an unbelievable job. She had a target of $4 million and she passed (it). It’s pretty remarkable.”
Indeed, for a single night fundraiser, this event makes the Houston record books.
“What’s so great about this charity,” Fertitta continues, “is that none of the money goes to ‘national.’ All of the money stays right here in Harris County.”
Adding to the bottom line was the live auction of a dozen tempting items highlighted by the 2024 Porsche Cayenne, courtesy of Porsche of West Houston and Porsche River Oaks, represented by Maria Moncada Alaoui and Robert Dale.
Costuming was part of the fun of this ’60s themed bash where HCC board vice chair Gary Becker did his part dressing in tie-dye and carrying a wig that was longer than his near-shoulder length hair.
The evening honored beloved philanthropist and businesswoman Trini Mendenhall Royalty (yes, recently wed to Philip Royalty) for her widespread generosity through the Trini and O.C. Mendenhall Foundation and for her community service.
As is tradition, the name entertainment on this night featured three golden oldie groups: Herman’s Hermits lead singer Peter Noone, Gary Puckett & the Union Gap, and The Association. Each performing on separate stages placed around the ballroom.
Of special note: Although ailing television news legend Dave Ward could not make the gala, his voice resonated through the ballroom as emcee. Ward taped his dialogue eight months ago when he was in better health, guaranteeing that the man who has served as the emcee for this event for two decades got to continue as part of this remarkable record-breaking night.