Charles Hallmark's first meal in days would also be his last. The longtime gay rights activist, struggling with depression and attendant health problems, gathered his strength the evening of Sept. 9 to join friends at a Dining for Life benefit. He was in the midst of one of his crippling spells -- couldn't eat, couldn't sleep -- but he never missed the annual fundraiser held at participating restaurants, where a percentage of the night's profits goes to AIDS Services of Austin.
Hallmark died the next morning of an apparent heart attack, according to friends. A memorial service will be held at 7pm, Monday, Sept. 22, at Mount Bonnell. Those attending are asked to bring a beverage to offer a toast to the devoted pagan. A reception will follow.
Hallmark began volunteer work for ASA in 1991. He was then a painfully shy 40-year-old, a boy genius with big spectacles, an erudite manner, and a dry wit. "At first, he was so shy he would barely look at you," said former ASA staffer Loretta Holland. "I always wondered why someone so quiet would want to spend time with us -- we were loud and crazy. It took years for Charles to open up, but it was like watching someone coming out of a cocoon. He was just beautiful."
Hallmark went on to volunteer for other groups -- the Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas, Project Transitions, and the Texas Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, among others. In 1998, Hallmark, a geologist, left his job as a product-safety investigator for the Texas Department of Health to devote himself full-time to social causes. No one was more thrilled than then-LGRL Director Dianne Hardy-Garcia; she rewarded him with a paid staff position, to thank him for his tireless volunteer work. "At every event, he would be the first one there and the last to leave," she said. "He so believed in the cause."
Hardy-Garcia and Hallmark became good friends. "He had a way of frightening you at first," she said. "He had a huge knowledge of everything from weaponry to the habanero pepper. You had to develop a taste for him." On the night before he died, Hallmark was quiet but true to his love of anything hot and spicy. When it came time to order, he peered over his glasses and in his breathy voice, deadpanned: "Angry Pasta," (one of the sassier numbers on the Romeo's menu). But Hallmark's health problems cut the evening short. He had a seizure, spent several hours at the Heart Hospital of Austin, and was released about 1:30am. He refused offers to stay at a friend's house. He just wanted to go home, he said.
A few days after his death, Spring Lee, one of his dining companions from that evening, sought to put Hallmark's life, and death, in perspective. "Whenever you asked Charles how he was doing, he would always say, 'surviving,'" she said, affecting his trademark voice. "Now he's not just surviving -- he's free."