by Big Mike Phillips
Tragedy to Triumph
It was the early 1990s on a Saturday morning; I had just opened the Brass Rail’s doors for business that day, when this very handsome young man with blonde, shoulder-length hair came into the bar. I remember as if it were yesterday.
He came up to the bar, said hello, and ordered a Miller Genuine Draft beer in a bottle. There was no one else but he and I in the place. After paying for the beer, he literally went and sat at a high top on the other side of the bar by the windows looking out on Robinson Avenue.
I thought to myself, Why is he sitting way over there when he could just sit at the bar and talk with me? LOL. He really did make it very difficult for me to flirt with him.
As we began to talk from one side of the room to the other, he said that he had just moved here from Spokane, Washington. I welcomed him to San Diego and asked the normal curious questions that any respectful gay man would ask while flirting from across an empty room.
He ordered another MGD and I took it over to him. We talked a little bit more, he finished his beer, and then left, saying goodbye.
I asked his name, and he said Rob. “Nice to meet you, I’m Big Mike,” I said, inviting him to come back anytime. He never did join me at the bar that morning, but I did say, “I hope I’ll see you again.”
Well, he did come back, every Saturday morning like clockwork, and the second time he did join me at the bar. Come to find out he had a great sense of humor, we laughed a lot.
Rob told me he was living in an empty room downtown, with no bed or TV, so I decided to help him out. I got him a single bed, bed sheets, a pillow, a small black-and-white TV, a few dishes, some silverware, a couple plates, and pans, just so he had something. Rob was overwhelmed by the gesture.
As we were talking, I finally asked him his last name and he replied Rob Benzon. As time went on, we started to become good friends. He told me he hated living downtown, so I offered him my couch to sleep on until he could get on his feet. He accepted my offer and it was during these times that we really became more like family.
One day around this time, Nigel Mayer, who was a bartender at Flicks and one of my very best friends, called me while I was starting my evening shift at the Brass Rail. He asked if I knew anyone who could work the door.
I said, “Yeah, call Rob at my house and ask him, he is looking for work.” Rob did go to work that night at Flicks, which led to a full-time job.
It just so happened that about a month after Rob started working at Flicks, that Nigel needed a new roommate. This was a great opportunity for Rob, moving in with Nigel and his boyfriend, because he now had his own room and his own privacy.
Nigel, Rob, and I all became such great friends. Rob and I especially started hanging out together pretty much every day. We had so much fun together, we made each other laugh a lot. And meanwhile, Rob was working his way up in the bar, from doorman to barback, then bartender, and finally assistant manager.
Rob was a jokester, he used to call me throughout the day, changing his voice and making crazy and funny prank calls. At first, I would fall for them, but I soon caught on to Rob’s silliness. He was adventurous, he loved his friends and his newfound community.
Rob and I moved a lot in those early days of getting settled in San Diego, we were always helping each other move to our new locations. It was one of those times when I helped Rob move to the famous Hunter house on Hunter Street in Mission Hills, where I met a whole new group of people that I am still friends with to this day. Wonderful people – like Michael Groch, John Cashman, Dan Ferbal, Steve Hawley, Chris Fahey, Jon Harrison, Jessica Harrison, Michael Mance, Tony Machado, and Alan Zieg – were always around or living at the Hunter house. Of course, I also met so many other wonderful people during that time through all these individuals.
Fast forward our lives to June 5, 1999. I’ll never forget that day.
I received a call from John Cashman in Acapulco, Mexico, giving me the horrible news that Rob had drowned. My heart sunk to the floor; I emotionally lost it. My roommate at the time, Joey Arruda, who is my brother in life, thank God he was there to console me. I just could not believe what I was hearing. Rob was only 31-years old. While swimming in the ocean, a rip current grabbed him, pulled him under and took his breath from his body forever.
The day Rob had left for Acapulco he asked if I would do him a favor and take his dog “Petey” to the airport and send him to his family in Spokane. Which I did, of course. Looking back on that entire scenario, I believe in my heart I was saying goodbye to Rob through Petey.
When everyone arrived back from Acapulco, Rob’s closest friends gathered at Mike Groch and John Cashman’s home, to not only be there for each other, but plan a memorial to honor Rob’s life. Mike, Dan Ferbal, and I were in a side room and started the difficult conversation on how we would make this a morning to remember.
We decided that Rob’s memorial would be held at the Catamaran Resort (one of the Evans Hotels … the eight or nine boys who went on that trip to Acapulco had stayed at the home of the hotel chain’s owner at that time). Because Rob had always worn Old Navy clothes, we asked everyone to show up in Old Navy gear.
It was a Saturday morning and over 300 people gathered to show their love. Those of us who organized Rob’s memorial decided to put an envelope on each chair asking for any type of donation. Rob’s friends were very generous that day and we raised $10,000, with Rob’s mom matching the donation.
That was our first fundraiser and the beginning of a future nonprofit. Together with the names I mentioned earlier, myself included, we co-founded The Rob Benzon Foundation (RBF). In fact, the first few years it was Dan Ferbal and Steve Hawley who opened their home to host what became known as the Launch Party.
Over the years, with the support and love of our community, RBF has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars and helped so many through its grant programs. The annual Launch fundraiser has moved to much larger locations and has become the biggest, and the must go-to kick-off event of San Diego Pride weekend.On Aug. 13, 2019, our dear friend Dan Ferbal, who was serving as RBF’s president of the board, lost his year-long battle with a rare and aggressive nerve cancer at the age of 54.
Dan was such a kind and compassionate friend to so many. He was on that same trip and witnessed Rob’s death and then dedicated his life, time, money, and love to make sure people were taken care of through this foundation. After his death, the board all agreed to add Dan’s name to the foundation to honor his commitment all those years.
Long before his death, Dan and his partner Steve Hawley, with the support of the entire board of the RBF, made sure that the annual Scott Carlson Thanksgiving Dinner, sponsored by the Imperial Court de San Diego (and held at the San Diego LGBT Community Center), was funded for almost 15 years.
Because of all the support Dan showed to the Imperial Court, they have also since renamed the dinner as the Scott Carlson/Dan Ferbal Thanksgiving Dinner.
It touches my heart and soul to know I was able to share time with these two loving men in my life. They were able to bring so many people together in their lifetimes, and they are still bringing thousands of people together to this day, after all these many years, to help those in need.
Many may not have known them personally, but they have been blessed by their names, which have helped change their lives for the better when they needed that help to move forward in hard times.
Sometimes we lose the people we love the most to help create strength, compassion, and love through those who are taken too soon.
These are the shoulders I stand upon.
–Big Mike Phillips is a local photographer, bartender, and longtime LGBT activist and fundraiser. You can reach him at [email protected].
Get your tickets now for The Rob Benzon / Dan Ferbal Foundation, Launch 2023, Friday, July 14, 6-10 pm, held at the Historic Burnham House in the heart of Hillcrest. For more information, visit robbenzon.org or email [email protected].
Start off your Pride weekend by giving back to our fellow brothers and sisters while having a great time doing so. Show the love.