by Mike Anglin
John Thomas used to say that volunteer organizations “can often replace lost board members with good new ones – but they’ll never have any new founders.” To John, being a founder of an organization that was good and lasting – being at the beginning of an important new idea – was something to be especially proud of. The Dallas Black Tie Dinner was one of those organizations.
One weekend in the spring of 1982, John Thomas called me and our mutual friend, Ray Kuchling, and asked us if we would be willing to meet with him and a visitor from Washington, named Jim Foster “about a project.” Since the invitation was coming from John, I naturally agreed to come, but I was curious.
“Okay, but who is this Jim Foster, and why do you want me and Ray to meet him … exactly?” I asked.
“Well, he’s an old acquaintance of mine ... he's from Washington, D.C. We met in Miami when I was working at the Miami Herald and he was there to assist in the “Dade County Initiative” referendum. He called me and said he was coming to town and wanted to make a proposal to us about a project in Dallas.”
The red flags went up immediately. I didn’t like the sound of it. “Now, John Thomas – this wouldn’t be another fund raiser, would it?” We often called each other by our first and last names.
“Well, sort of,” John said. “And I already know what you’re going to say, Mike . . . ‘How many times can we shake the same ol’ trees for donations?’ ... but this sounds interesting, so please, let’s just hear him out, and then we can decide what to do. No strings attached.”
As I recall, the meeting that night actually took place for some reason in the recreation room of Ray Kuchling’s apartment complex on Cedar Springs, near Love Field. Oddly enough, I remember sitting uncomfortably on the pool table as we listened to Jim Foster and discussed the proposal with him.
Jim Foster was a nice enough guy – tall and lanky, balding, with a moustache. He had been recently retained by a newly created organization based in Washington, D.C., called, at that time, “HRCF” (the Human Rights Campaign Fund), which intended to conduct direct lobbying of the federal government on behalf of the gay community. The organization was in need of funding, and its leader, Steve Endean (the founding director of HRCF in 1980) had hired Jim to lead its nation-wide fund raising efforts.
Foster’s concept for raising funds regionally was to replicate a successful scheme he had employed in his earlier days as a political activist in California.
Separate and apart from seeking large donations from wealthy individual contributors and businesses, he wanted to create a number of formal black tie dinners in various cities across the country, where hundreds of financially generous people could participate by buying rather expensive tickets to attend the affair.
So this idea of a formal “fancy” dinner in Dallas, to take place in a large, beautiful banquet hall of a major Dallas hotel – for which every participant would pay $150 – was Jim Foster’s basic proposal to us. He seemed prepared for some resistance and graciously offered to step out for a while and let the three of us mull it over in private.
Were there reasons why we might have said “No thanks?” Yes. There were several good arguments against the project.
First, it was clear that such a major project could easily fall on its face financially. The tickets were expensive. $150 in 1982 is what $396 is today in 2017. Can you imagine how many tickets you would be able to sell to your friends for $396 each, to support an organization they had never heard of, located in Washington, D.C? People here didn’t know Steve Endean ‘from Adam’ ... and they certainly didn’t know Jim Foster. Plus, a hotel’s banquet room would be a costly commitment (the cost of which the three of us would have to personally guarantee).
But the biggest argument against taking it on was that we were already spread way too thin at that point in time. If we added this project to the mix, it might be too much. At that same time, in 1982, we were still pulling together two new organizations: the Turtle Creek Chorale and Razzle Dazzle Dallas. I had incorporated each of them, but they were young and struggling and needed support and funding of their own. At the same time, we were launching the AIDS Resource Center and the Food Pantry as extensions of the Dallas Gay Alliance. I had weekly DGA board meetings, plus Social Justice Committee meetings. And on top of that I, along with Dick Peeples and Lee Taft, were serving as the Dallas contingent in the statewide board of Texas Human Rights Foundation, pressing forward with the critically important case of Baker vs. Wade through the federal court system.
All of that was going on at this same time, and all of these efforts required continuous fund raising and planning. Yes, a strong lobbying force in Washington D.C. was clearly needed, but our calendars were already full, and we could be forgiven for declining to take Jim Foster up on his proposal to take on another layer of responsibilities and time commitments.
But then I remembered something my old North Carolina grandmother used to say: “If you want something done, find a busy person to do it.”
I guess the more the three of us talked about it, the more we goaded each other into the possibility of saying “yes.” It did seem like it could be, at least, a fun project to try – even if it didn’t raise any money. And it was clear that nothing of this sort had ever happened before in the Dallas gay community.
John said we should only do it if all three of us were willing to take it on as an active priority. It wasn’t enough to just say “yes, it sounds like a great idea.” We each had to commit to it, all the way through to the end. Otherwise, we should take a pass on it.
Ray jumped in first and said “yes” ... but only if John and I both said yes.
Then John said: “What the heck. They can’t shoot us for trying.”
Of course, I, too, said yes: “Okay, if you two want to do it, I’ll go along with you. Let’s do it – but if we plan to sell more than three tickets, we’re going to need a bigger boat.” (… that great line from JAWS when chief of police Brody first sees the great white shark.)
What I meant by that was that John, Ray and I certainly had friends, but we would need to “tap in” to the most socially active, “upwardly mobile” and financially comfortable members of the community (after all, we would be proposing pretty high-priced tickets). To do that, I felt we would really need to enlist the active support of our friend Dick Weaver, who was at the epicenter of that active social group in Dallas. I was sure that group would follow Dick’s lead.
I called Dick, and – never one to hesitate in joining a new adventure – he readily agreed to host a meeting the next night at his home, with as many of his friends as he could muster on short notice. John, Ray and I (and I believe Jim Foster, too) arrived at Dick’s apartment and, sure enough, sitting on the sofas and chairs, and on the floor, leaning against the walls, were a good number of Dick’s friends. We talked about the proposed event, and they, adopting Dick’s positive attitude, agreed to support it. Dick Weaver, Steve Arnn and Jay Oppenheimer joined our steering committee on the spot. The rest of them said they didn’t want to be on a board or committee – but assured us that they would buy the tickets when the time came.
That group of friends became the core supporters and “underwriters” of the event in its first years, before its popularity grew exponentially into what it is today. That is why anyone who talks about the history of the Dallas Black Tie Dinner who doesn’t mention the critically important roll played by Dick Weaver and that group meeting at his apartment doesn’t have the whole story. He got his friends to say, “If you build it . . . WE WILL COME. You just worry about the dinner; don’t worry about selling the damn tickets. We will take care of that part. We’ll buy the tickets.”
That was exactly what we needed to hear. And with that, we were set to roll. After all, Dallas loves a good dinner party!
There was just one sticking point. Jim Foster’s idea was that HRCF would essentially “guide and govern” the process of creating the event from Washington, working through local volunteers. The work would all be “local,” but the event would be owned and controlled by HRCF, as an HRCF event. He wanted to make clear that this was an HRCF fundraising dinner.
John, Ray and I didn’t like that structure, so we told Jim that there was just something about Texans that made it hard for us to follow orders from Washington, D.C. Perhaps it was something in the water, but we just couldn’t help it. We told him we would do this dinner event, and that it might generate, hopefully, a good contribution to HRCF, but that the local committee would be the owner and controller of the event. At the conclusion of the dinner, we would tally up our profits, if any, and then determine for ourselves the amount of the contribution to be passed on to HRCF.
Since he had no real choice, Foster reluctantly agreed to our terms. The Dallas dinner would be different from those in other cities. It would be locally owned and controlled - - and it still is to this day.
As it turned out, that autonomy was one of the secrets of our unparalleled success. The first Black Tie Dinner was a financial success (as well as a social hit), and we gave all the net profits to HRCF in Washington – but –
For the second Black Tie Dinner in 1983, probably somewhat to our surprise, we netted even more money from ticket sales than in 1982. We decided, on our own, to split the net profits from the event between HRCF and the Federation of AIDS-Related Organizations.
For the third Black Tie Dinner, in 1984, we added (as a new beneficiary) the Foundation for Human Understanding (the organization initiated by the Dallas Gay Alliance, and which is today called the Resource Center Dallas).
In 1985, we added Metropolitan Community Church, Oak Lawn Counseling Services, Texas Human Rights Foundation and the Turtle Creek Chorale as local 501.c.3 non-profits who had ‘qualified’ as beneficiaries by pledging to purchase five full tables at the upcoming event (50 tickets). For each $150 ticket they sold, $50 would go to the cost of the event, $50 would go to HRCF in Washington, and the final $50 could go to their own organization if they convinced the individual ticket holder/buyer to “designate” their local organization as the “local beneficiary” for that ticket.
Seen as a great way to raise funds for their own endeavors, these new beneficiary organizations went out and started shaking their own trees to sell tickets, so they could “take home” a third of the price of each ticket for their own organization. This concept of sharing the net profits greatly expanded the number of tickets and tables being sold. Tickets started flying out the door, and money started flowing in.
Importantly, even after sharing the net proceeds with our local organizations, HRCF loved the Dallas Black Tie Dinner, because it was receiving so much money from Dallas. Nevertheless, I always suspected that Steve Endean in Washington never “got over” the Dallas committee’s independence from HRCF, and when in 2006 he published his book “Twenty Years of Progress” on the founding of HRCF – which included extensive discussion of Jim Foster and his nation-wide “Black Tie Dinner” fundraising success – he never once mentions the city of Dallas, despite its being the location of HRCF’s most lucrative fund-rising over the years. He mentions Houston, Atlanta, Philadelphia and Chicago – just not Dallas. Still, he never refused our large checks to HRCF.
Anyway, it’s no surprise that John Thomas quickly emerged as the natural leader of the first “Dallas Dinner Committee.” And its success over the long term should always be attributed, largely, to his vision and his ability to share that vision with others and to inspire creative action.
In fact, at the second Black Tie Dinner, the 1983 we presented John with what we called our “humanitarian award.” He was very surprised – and I think he even found it a little awkward, since he had been so instrumental in creating the organization that was now honoring him – but the committee would have it no other way. It was great fun seeing him so touched by the sentiment. That established the tradition of giving such an award (renamed for Ray Kuchling shortly before his death) at the many succeeding dinners over the decades that followed.
Black Tie Dinner Board of Directors during first 12 years:
Excerpted from: Beings of a Golden Kind, by Mike Anglin.