I remember exactly where I was the first moment I saw Cheryl Calhoun, in the spring of 1998. And my memory of her appearance then was the same as it was the last time I saw her, just three months ago.
Perfect, porcelain skin. Red lipstick to go with her red nails. Perfectly applied make-up. Bright colored outfit. Big jewelry. Red, Texas hair, which was lighter now than then because, as she always said, “you must go lighter as you age.” Nice shoes since “the first thing people notice are your feet.” And a confident walk that showed she wasn’t exactly in a hurry. She was on Calhoun time … always on Calhoun time.
She came to us a legend of sorts. Then a 27-year veteran of the hospitality industry, she had hit the height of her career – having served as both a large meeting hotel director of sales and an executive director at a convention and visitors bureau – and just wanted to sell. Serve her clients. She was, after all, the consummate hostess.
When she came to us, most everyone in our office – and certainly our sales department – were of an age and experience level where we thought we knew it all. She showed us we didn’t know squat, without us ever knowing she was doing it.
When she came to us, she had so much professional experience under her belt, and so much life experience. We couldn’t appreciate it at the time.
We certainly do now.
While her passing this week has left us – along with a whole lot of the hospitality industry – reeling, it’s also reminded us of what a life blessing Cheryl Barnes Calhoun truly was.
Although she was born and raised in Mississippi, she would spend most of her career in Texas. And most of her career was spent handling the Texas meetings market for multiple hotels and convention and visitor bureaus (CVBs).
But it wasn’t just the market she covered that earned her the moniker Ms. Texas. No, it was so much more than that.
If you put in a blender and mixed at high speed the Yellow Rose of Texas, Julia Sugarbaker, Mary Kay Ash, Joanna Gains and threw in some Sissy Spacek for the red hair, you’d end up with a big, tall glass of Cheryl Calhoun.
She was the quintessential Texas lady and businesswomen, and over-the-top in everything she did. From dressing to decorating to gift giving to how she made everyone in her life feel, she overdid.
By overdid I mean this: There’s three ways of doing things … the normal way, overachiever way, and the Calhoun way. She was ‘Go Big or Go Home’ before those words ever saw the front of a t-shirt.
Her events were perfect productions, right down to the matching linen. Her gifts had the perfectly tied bow, always with a sweet handwritten note. Her office was a high end Kirkland’s on steroids: Walls covered in artwork, tapestry, throws, crystal candy dishes and candles. So many candles. Always lit.
Calhoun’s Austin sales blitzes were epic, to say the least. Everyone knew Irving was in town by the sheer number of vans on the road. Two of those were for her binders alone. She would spend months setting, assigning and organizing appointments. It was the Calhoun way.
We were blessed to work beside her for ten years at the Irving CVB. She was the one we went to for advice, both personal and professional. She was the one who threw the countless showers. With her always calm and steady demeanor, she was the one who got us through some of life’s most stressful moments.
She left for an opportunity to work from home for Galveston. But she couldn’t quit us anymore than we could quit her. She was back – sort of – within two years, this time with the soon-to-open Irving Convention Center at Las Colinas (ICC) as its first director of sales.
For the ICC’s opening events, she took it upon herself to make sure copper soap dispensers, flowers for the restrooms, and butter mint candy bowls were purchased, and directional signage was created. No stone was ever left unturned. It was, after all, the Calhoun way.
When she retired in the fall of 2016, she wasn’t sure if it was the right move. She loved her work. But when her husband Ross passed away suddenly in the fall of 2020, she would say it was God at work for the four undistracted years she got to spend with him.
The last time I saw Calhoun was in June. A colleague from way back had come to town, and another colleague from that same era hosted us. She asked me and Calhoun to bring beverages. For me that meant a few bottles of wine. For Calhoun it was two coolers and a box of what I swear had to be her entire liquor cabinet.
She talked about how much she missed Ross. She told stories about Kelly Roche – our coworker who we lost to COVID in January and who was an industry icon in his own right. And, with pride, she told us what her grandkids were doing. “Dee Dee” loved those grandkids.
Oh, how we will miss you, Calhoun. Last week, when news of your passing preceded your passing, do you know what we said? That we could hear you, in your slow, half deep South-half Texas accent saying, “Well, hell!”
Goodbye for now, Ms. Texas. Your candles – the thousands and thousands you bought over the years – burned out long before your legend ever will.
Contributors: Katherine DiPietro, Lori Fojtasek, Jennifer Gordon, Cheryl Hopkins, Debra Kerr, Marianne Lauda, Lori Mansell and Carol Stoddard