|A tip of the hat to the Belle Isle
By Julie Yolles
It was tax day when 115 women plus a few good men got
together to drink, eat, shop for hats and strategize over
an important charitable deduction.
The scene was the Benefactor Party, a pre-glow of sorts
to the upcoming Belle Isle Legacy Luncheon May 21 at the
Belle Isle Casino. The fourth annual event is organized
by the Belle Isle Women's Committee, and guests are invited
to help “Polish the Jewel” by donning their
snazziest chapeaus in solidarity with the revitalization
of Belle Isle.
Since his wife, Cynthia, hosted the Benefactor Party at
their home, Edsel Ford II came to show his support. Since
Tony Earley's wife, Sarah, is the founder, president and
catalyst of the Belle Isle Women's Committee, he came to
show his support.
“The third floor of our house has
become the Belle Isle north office,” Earley said with
a laugh. He is chairman and CEO of DTE Energy, a Legacy
Luncheon corporate sponsor.
“This is a full-time job for Sarah,”
Earley said of his wife's all-volunteer effort and the all-volunteer
group she founded in December 2004 with 90 other civic-minded
women. “She is totally dedicated to raising the money
to restore Belle Isle to the glory it really deserves. I
enjoy watching how successful it's become.”
So successful that the Belle Isle Women's
Committee has raised $1.2 million. This month's luncheon
is expected to generate an additional $300,000. The committee
already has allocated $800,000 to the renovation of Sunset
Pointe, the island's western tip, including demolishing
and rebuilding a new restroom. The committee's next project
is the Dairy Barn.
And to think it all started with a term
To earn her associate's degree in landscape
design from Oakland Community College, Sarah chose to write
her final paper on Belle Isle and its designer, Frederick
Law Olmsted, who also designed Central Park.
“Belle Isle was in a serious state
of neglect and decay — a poor little stepchild who
didn't get any money from the city,” said Sarah, who
calls Caribou Coffee in Birmingham her external office.
“They were putting millions of dollars into the RiverFront
Conservancy, but nothing into the island, and I thought,
"Why not?' “
So Sarah formulated a mission: to preserve, renovate
and restore Belle Isle, one project at a time. She patterned
her fundraisers after a successful “hat luncheon”
that started in New York City almost 25 years ago. This
month there are four hat-themed luncheons in the Detroit
area. But you can't really have a luncheon without the proper
chapeau, so Sarah invited Wyandotte-based hat designer Gena
Conti to the Benefactor Party to sell, well, hats. Conti
donated 15 percent of the night's proceeds to the committee.
“Belle Isle is our jewel and I think that
hats are like a crown of jewels,” Conti said.Hats
off to Sarah.
While mingling over cocktails, guests reminisced
about the good ol' days on Belle Isle and the significance
of the Belle Isle Women's Committee. Here's what they had
Cynthia Ford, Benefactor Party host: “Sarah
figured out that it was the right time to take control and
make it happen. She's really made Belle Isle a rejuvenated
jewel in the city of Detroit. Kudos to her.”
Ford was the first person at the party to
sign up to be a life member of the Belle Isle Women's Committee.
Vivian Rogers Pickard, director of corporate
relations, General Motors orp.: “Between my relationship
with Sarah and knowing how important Belle Isle is to the
community, it was an easy sell to get involved.”
Pickard was the first-year co-chair of the
Belle Isle Legacy Luncheon. GM is a corporate sponsor.
Faye Alexander Nelson, president and CEO,
Detroit RiverFront Conservancy: “I commend Sarah for
her leadership and her vision and for all of what she's
done to bring back Belle Isle to its glory.”
Nelson's family spent its weekends on Belle
Yolles: What are your memories of Belle
Linda Gillum, chair, Belle Isle Legacy Luncheon,
adjunct faculty, iversity of Michigan Medical School, department
of psychiatry: “I'm a native Detroiter who went to
Belle Isle every weekend. These are women (on the committee)
who don't have a lot of time, but who devote the time that
they do have to see our community prosper. The Belle Isle
Women's Committee is made up of all age groups, spanning
the demographics in the right way.”
Debbie Dingell, co-chair, Belle Isle Legacy
Luncheon; vice chair, General Motors Foundation, executive
director of public affairs and community relations, General
Motors Corp.: “The river is what connects all of us.
It pulls us all together as a region. My father raced droplanes
on Belle Isle.”
Yolles: How does it feel to be one of
only 11 guys at this chicks' event?
Jim Nicholson, corporate sponsor, Belle
Isle Legacy Luncheon; CEO, PVS Chemicals Inc.: “I
thought, "What am I doing here?' I had an early clue
that I shouldn't be there. I also thought very seriously
about what hat to wear, and decided none. I was very impressed
with the energy of the group. As a Detroit-based company,
we're thrilled to support their mission.”
Gena Conti has been burning the midnight oil since February
creating couture hats in her Wyandotte workroom for the
races — Dubai World Cup, Kentucky Derby, Preakness,
Belmont Stakes, Royal Ascot and Melbourne Cup — and
for upcoming hat luncheon charity events.
Her handmade hats range from $165 to $1,200.
“I am a custom milliner,” said the 16-year
veteran. “There's no reason why I could not make a
Fair enough. Any inside tips for preventing hat head?
“Why would you even think of taking your hat off?”
Conti said. “Your hat is part of your entire, complete
ensemble. You might as well remove your blouse. How do you
avoid runs in your hosiery if you take your shoes off and
dance on the dance floor?”