From cooking Thanksgiving dinner for Daire Center clients to heading up the team that builds the Caven parade float, parade co-grand marshal Chris Bengston has been a force behind the scenes of the community for 26 years
DAVID TAFFET | Staff Writer
When Caven Enterprises’ Chris Bengston saw the list of people nominated for grand marshal of Dallas’ 2011 Alan Ross Texas Freedom Parade, her name was not on it. And she wasn’t at the Dallas Tavern Guild meeting where her name was added.
So when Caven Enterprises President Gregg Kilhoffer called her to come back to the office, she had no idea what was going on.
When Kilhoffer called, he told her that there was an incident at one of the bars and her name was involved. So Bengston ran back to the office as quickly as possible, frantically trying to figure out what she had done.
Actually, everyone at Caven Enterprises just wanted to see her face when she found out that she would be one of this year’s Pride parade grand marshals.
What they saw there on her face was shock.
To Bengston, all of the events she planned and dinners she cooked and money she raised for practically every organization in the city over the years was just something she always did out of love for the community.
“I guess people were paying attention to what I was doing,” she said, still incredulous that she would have been named to lead the parade.
Kilhoffer calls Bengston the company’s mom.
Before moving to Dallas, Bengston was married. Her husband served in the Army and went to Vietnam.
“When he came back, things didn’t work out,”she said, adding that she just never remarried.
“That’s just the way things worked out,” she said.
But when she was in her 40s, Bengston became pregnant, even though, she said, “I wasn’t supposed to be able to get pregnant.”
Her son, Alex, was the first Caven baby. He’s now a sophomore at Texas State University in San Marcos.
But while Alex was the first Caven baby, he wasn’t the last.
“What’s neat,” Bengston said, “are the number of employees with children now.”
Kilhoffer said several employees became like a dad to Alex.
When Alex was young, Bengston took a number of young Caven employees along with her son on a variety of outings — to the Fort Worth Zoo or the Arboretum or sporting events. She exposed many young people to things they’d never done before.
Kilhoffer said Bengston gave many of the company’s young employees the family they never had. He said she was “Caven’s own Youth First Texas” and “It Gets Better” campaign before either existed.
“I’m constantly getting emails about her, thanking her for going above and beyond,” Kilhoffer said. “She’ll drop anything she’s doing to help anyone.”
Bengston has been involved in hundreds of projects over the years that benefited the community.
One of her fondest memories is working with the Daire Center, an adult daycare center for people with HIV/AIDS, when it was part of Oak Lawn Community Services. Kilhoffer remembers the annual Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners that Bengston cooked for the center.
“At 4 in the morning, she’d call to see where I was,” he said. She was already preparing the holiday meal.
He said she spent days, not just cooking, but doing all the shopping and making more than just a ham or turkey. She wanted to make sure, he said, that people who had nowhere else to go would have a holiday celebration that started with hors d’oeuvres and didn’t end until they had her homemade desserts.
“I could go on and on,” Kilhoffer said. “She’s been involved in so many things. Everyone knows they can call on her and she’s the volunteer who will make things happen.”
For years, Bengston and fellow Caven employee Donald Solomon have been involved in the holiday gift project for students at Sam Houston Elementary School. That school, located just a block behind the Cedar Springs bars, is one of the poorest in the Dallas Independent School District. Each year, Caven employees, led by Solomon and Bengston, make sure that every child at the school gets a gift at Christmas.
And before the school year begins, they make sure that there are enough school supplies. During the year, Bengston will get calls from the school for additional items, and she always responds. The Oak Lawn Library also has relied on her help when they’ve needed supplies.
“For Razzle Dazzle Dallas [revived this year by Cedar Springs Merchants Association, of which Caven is a member], she was the one who calmed us down and kept us focused,” Kilhoffer said.
Bengston organized a fundraiser after Hurricane Katrina for people who had been evacuated from New Orleans and were staying at Reunion Arena. And she’s helped stage fashion shows in an alcohol-free Rose Room, located in Caven’s Station 4 bar, to benefit Youth First Texas.
Bengston’s also involved with GayBingo, held monthly in the Rose Room, helping Resource Center Dallas and a variety of other beneficiary organizations raise money. And she helps with LifeWalk. And the Pink Party, which raises money for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation.
Much of the $50,000 that the Dallas Bears raised for community groups at their weekend round-up this year came from the Bear Dance — an event that Bengston made sure went off without a hitch.
“In the ’80s and ’90s, Caven lost quite a few employees to AIDS,” Kilhoffer said. “She [Bengston] was such a help to those who were dying, and to their partners. She sat in the hospital and comforted so many people in their last days.”
For years, Bengston spent the night before the parade building Caven’s parade float along with three friends. Then she spent parade day working behind the scenes.
So she’s rarely gotten to just enjoy the parade.
But after she was named grand marshal this year, Bengston said she asked those three friends — Scott Pepin, Stacy Golf and Bill Scott — to join her in the carriage to enjoy the parade with her.
Bengston said she does the things she does because she’s worked in the LGBT community for 26 years and she wants to see it remain strong.
“I am truly blessed,” Bengston said. “I’ve made a very nice living and appreciate all of the years of memories and acceptance. I’ve had the best times of my life here.”
And she plans to keep on giving. But there’s one lesson she said she learned that keeps her humble after years of working with Caven.
After staging so many fundraising events at the Rose Room, Bengston said, “There are so many guys who look better in an evening gown than I do.”
For more information on Caven Enterprises, go online to Caven.com.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 16, 2011.