Her name won’t appear on any buildings, though she clearly helped build them
Former Resource Center co-Executive Director Karen Estes died on Dec. 16 following a brief illness.
Estes was a straight ally of the LGBT, but she had been an ally since the 1980s — before the term was used to describe the straight people who backed the LGBT community.
“At times, she was a stronger supporter of the LGBT community than we were,” said her co-executive director, Jamie Shield. When the gay community was focusing all its attention on AIDS, Estes pushed DGA to include an LGBT focus in its work, he added.
William Waybourn, an early leader of Dallas Gay Alliance that created what is now known as Resource Center, said Estes was never interested in getting credit for all the work she did for the community, but her involvement was tremendous.
“Her name won’t appear on any buildings, though she clearly helped build them,” he said.
Waybourn met Estes in 1985 when he was managing DGA President Bill Nelson’s bid for Dallas City Council. Estes was working for Nelson’s opponent.
“Despite our roles in opposite campaigns, we shared late night or early morning meals at the neighborhood Dennys,” Waybourn said.
The political rivalry, he said, was never personal.
“Because Bill and Karen both shared a commitment to neighborhood issues, after the election — and Bill’s loss — she hung around as a member of our circle,” Waybourn said. And when Nelson ran again in 1987, she was firmly in his camp.
Soon after the election, and a second loss, Nelson’s partner Terry Tebedo was diagnosed with AIDS. Tebedo, Nelson and Waybourn ran a store called Crossroads Market on the corner of Cedar Springs Road and Throckmorton Street then, and Tebedo had to leave the business due to his illness. Nelson left to take care of him.
“No one asked Karen Estes to help,” Waybourn said. “She just showed up one day and went to work, occupying a desk in the back of the store.”
And she worked there without being paid. Estes was a contractor, so she ran her business from her desk in the store, but worked countless hours for Crossroads Market as well as DGA and the AIDS Resource Center.
Back then, AIDS Resource Center was officed in space on Cedar Springs Road that is now occupied by Out of the Closet. After an arsonist burned the center’s offices, along with adjacent stores and the Round-Up Saloon, Waybourn said Estes had the organization up and running within hours.
“Karen made a call to the Communications Workers of America, who showed up seemingly unannounced to install a new phone system in a building one block away [that is now the Nelson-Tebedo Clinic],” Waybourn said. That meant clients could call to learn the food pantry survived and how to make donations.
Estes also helped John Thomas find new property and negotiate the Center’s purchase of 2701 Reagan Street from Dallas Metropolitan Community Church (now known as Cathedral of Hope). She became a Resource Center staff member after the purchase to help renovate the aging buildings and repurpose them from a church into offices and a community center.
“The renovation was a major undertaking, and Karen Estes’ role was not only to manage it, but also keep costs in line,” Waybourn said. “That meant a lot of phone calls to individuals and businesses for donations of equipment, materials and money.”
He said her voluminous Rolodex of contacts was extremely valuable.
After John Thomas, Resource Center’s first executive director , retired due to his own battle with AIDS, the board made a disastrous choice in its selection of the organization’s next leader. When that person resigned, the board turned to Shield and Estes to run the organization as co-executive directors.
AIDS Services Dallas CEO Don Maison recalled a conversation he had with Estes at the time during which he asked her, “How will that even work?”
But it worked for almost five years. Shield oversaw the programs and Estes took care of facilities and financials. Although the team had been tapped to serve as interim directors while the board did a national search, the duo worked so well together that after a year the board named them permanent co-EDs.
After a few years of working together in one cramped office that was too small for even one person to operate in efficiently, Maison said disagreements did arise.
Rather than compete against each other to become sole executive director, Estes and Schield chose to resign together, giving the agency a year’s notice.
Mike McKay, who was executive director of AIDS Outreach Center in Fort Worth at the time and later Resource Center CEO, worked with Estes as the Tanqueray AIDS Ride from Houston to Dallas folded. He and Estes then created The Lone Star Ride Fighting AIDS to fill the fundraising gap when the Tanqueray AIDS Ride collapsed, and they asked Maison to bring ASD in as part of the event.
Maison said he’d known Estes since before the AIDS crisis and described her as a lot of fun.
“One time we got the numbskull idea to study Thai — until we found out how many consonants they have,” he said. Instead they enrolled in a class at El Centro and took Spanish 2. Because El Centro is a two-year college, the Spanish department only offered up to second level, but he and Estes learned that different professors taught different areas of Spanish, so they repeated Spanish 2 classes a number of times.
Waybourn described Estes as a person who brought stability to the community. “Her personality brought a measure of safety and comfort during the worst of times,” he said. “Karen Estes used her grit and her wit to get things done.”
And, he added, she never asked for credit for everything she did.
Estes never saw the new Resource Center that opened in May or the renovation of the property at 2701 Reagan — now the Health Campus — that was completed last month.
“I asked her to please go see the new center, telling her how proud she would be of what they had accomplished,” Waybourn said. “You should go, I said, because you helped make it happen.”
Estes told him with tears in her eyes, “I don’t think I could get past the front door. Too many memories, too many memories.”
“No honors will be bestowed upon her,” Waybourn said, “but clearly we are honored by her service and sacrifice.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 23, 2016.