Peoria Journal Star

January 20, 2005

Central Illinoisans head to Washington to support 'our guy'
Bigger, Brighter, Bolder

By Dori Meinert
of Copley News Service

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Valorie Oliver's toes were nearly frozen by the time she walked a few blocks in her pink evening gown and open-toed sandals to the Illinois State Society's pre-inaugural gala at the Grand Hyatt here.

Two inches of snowfall hit the nation's capital Wednesday, tying up traffic and making taxis hard to find for those struggling to get to the festivities.

"They don't handle this as well as we do in Peoria," said her husband, Peoria City Manager Randy Oliver.

They were among the more than 1,000 current and former Illinois residents gathered Wednesday for a black-tie dinner sponsored by the Illinois State Society with another 1,000 attending the ball later in the evening.

As they descended the escalators to the ballroom, party-goers were met with music from a string quartet, and they could stroll through rooms replicating Illinois scenes from the Illinois State Fair to a Mississippi riverboat.

They might bump into House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Yorkville, or Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., or Illinois' newest star, Democratic Sen. Barack Obama. Obama's wife arrived late after weather problems kept her sitting on an airport tarmac for five hours.

Sue and Phillip Carlson, both formerly of Mendota, said the gala, where they see old friends, is one of

the highlights of attending a presidential inauguration.

"It's kind of like a high school reunion in a great place," said Sue Carlson, 58, who now lives in Palm Beach, Fla.

Dinner attendees such as Marty Davis and his wife, Donna, of Springfield dined on the steak-and-shrimp dinner that cost $350 per person.

"We're very strong Republicans, and we're proud of what our Republicans are doing in Congress," said Davis, who owns several McDonald's restaurants and is a land developer.

Although he attended President Bush's first inauguration four years ago, Davis said, "It doesn't get old, and we love our guy. He's a cowboy, and he's not trying to be a windsurfer. ... He's a real guy."

Peoria native Nancy Goodman Brinker, who founded the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, was given a public service award at the dinner. But a scheduling conflict forced her to leave before the announcement was made.

The late Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill., was honored posthumously with a lifetime achievement award. Accepting the award was his son, Martin Simon, and the late senator's wife, Patti.

"I think Paul would be honored to be recognized tonight," Patti Simon said.

The $500,000 cost of the dinner and ball was partially offset by corporate sponsors. Dinner guests received a goody bag, which included an elephant or donkey Beanie Baby, a copy of Hastert's book "Speaker," and a bottle of Walgreen's ibuprofen caplets.