By Susan Schindehette
Updated May 08, 2000 12:00 PM

With her husband on a business trip and daughters Lili, 6, and Phoebe, 4, asleep in their beds, Donna Dees-Thomases curled up in the bedroom of her vacation house on Fire Island, N.Y., and began channel-surfing. Looking for The Late Show with David Letter-man, where she works as a part-time publicist, she stumbled instead on news footage of a procession of preschoolers being led away from a Jewish community center in Granada Hills, Calif., where a white supremacist armed with a submachine gun had gone on a rampage and shot five people. “I cried watching those kids cross the street,” recalls Dees-Thomases, 42, of that night last August. “That was my suburban mom wake-up call that gun violence can be everywhere.”

That Monday, while returning to her job in Manhattan, Dees-Thomases had an idea. Scribbling the words “Million Mom March” on the back of an envelope, she registered that day for a Web site and the next day filed for a permit to stage a gun-control march in “Washington, D.C. She chose an especially propitious day: Mother’s Day, May 14. “I figured it was nine months away,” says Dees-Thomases. “Women understand what you can create in nine months.”

In the months since, the Web site has drawn as many as 75,000 hits a day, and she and her growing organization have raised $850,000 of the $1.6 million needed to finance the event, which is expected to attract between 50,000 and 100,000 marchers. Rallies also have been scheduled in 20 other cities. Shortly after the Sept. 6 press conference at which she announced her plans, “I got a call from one of my husband’s customers’ wives in Oklahoma who said, Tm going to organize Tulsa,’ ” says Dees-Thomases. “It just took off.”

Celebrities including Emmy-lou Harris, Patty Smyth and Melissa Manchester have agreed to march, as have Rosie O’Donnell, who will emcee the event, Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, whose husband was killed in a 1993 gun attack on the Long Island Railroad, and Senate candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton. “As a mom myself,” says the First Lady, “I plan to participate in the Million Mom March to help push for common-sense gun control.” Still, perhaps the most compelling supporters are the dozens of women who have experienced gun violence first-hand. “I have nothing else to live for except this effort,” says Carolann Taylor, 44, an L.A. gas-company customer representative whose 17-year-old son, William, was killed by a stray bullet in 1993. “I can see him smiling and know he’s proud of what we’re doing.”

According to Dees-Thomases, who lives in Short Hills, N.J., with her husband of seven years, Jeffrey Thomases, 57, a textile company owner whose sister Susan Thomases is a close friend of the Clintons’, marchers will push for gun registration and licensing as well as for background checks for buyers and childproof gun locks. Keeping guns out of the hands of children became an especially sensitive issue on Feb. 29, when 6-year-old Kayla Rolland was shot and killed by a fellow first-grader in her Michigan classroom. “Handguns could have been child-proofed 25 years ago, but nobody made the gun industry do it,” says Dees-Thomases. “They took their money and didn’t make guns safer. They made them deadlier.”

Such outspokenness comes as no surprise to those who know her. “When Donna sets her mind to something, she’s tough, powerful and smart as a bayou tiger,” says CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather, who employed her as publicist from 1987 to 1993. In fact the Louisiana-born Dees-Thomases traces her antigun sentiments to her father. A pharmacist in New Orleans, he was “held up at gunpoint six or seven times,” she says. “A customer said once, ‘Why don’t you just buy a gun?’ He said, ‘Because I want to live to see the next holdup.’ ”

To date, the National Rifle Association’s response to the march has been muted. “I think there’s certainly room for debate and dissension,” says NRA spokesman Bill Powers. “They should feel free to express themselves.” Which is exactly what Dees-Thomases hopes they will do—with their feet. “Six-year-old kids should learn to read and play soccer, not die by gunfire,” she says. “Gun violence will only be curbed when everybody gets involved.”

Susan Schindehette

Eve Heyn in Short Hills