By Conrad Dudderar
Senior Staff Writer
Elaine Benda has been to every single Czech Festival in Yukon since the annual celebration began in 1966.
Benda, who serves on the board of directors of Oklahoma Czechs Inc. and is director of folk dancing, is being honored at this Saturday’s 54th annual Oklahoma Czech Festival.
Benda, who has been involved in the Oklahoma Czech community her entire life, will be grand parade marshal for the Main Street parade.
The Oklahoma City attorney’s heritage is 100 percent Czech; her paternal grandparents and maternal great grandparents were immigrants.
Benda emphasized Oklahoma’s Czech Fest is a statewide festival celebrating Czech heritage and culture.
“We’re supposed to represent all the Czechs in Oklahoma and we really do have people from all over the state who regularly come,” she said.
Although she’s parade marshal for this year’s Czech Fest, Benda has many more years left and says she wants to be “part of it forever.” Future goals include bringing her dance group to perform at a festival in the Czech Republic.
“Who’s to say we can’t?” said Benda, who’s been to the Czech Republic four times.
Festival attendees who don’t have Czech blood are at least Czech for one day – the first Saturday each October in Yukon. Benda wants people to learn more about Czech culture.
“When the band starts playing, get out there and be part of us!” Benda said. “Come out to Czech Hall the next Saturday and practice what you’ve learned. Make it part of your life. … It’s something you can do together with people of all ages.”
“I just want people to not just be Czech on Czech Day,” Benda added. “I hope the younger generation would look at something you can do to help. … Don’t be afraid to step up and learn how to do something.”
After many decades, Czech heritage remains strong in the Yukon-area.
“We should be very proud of what we have and how we’ve kept it going,” Benda said. “We have a very wonderful Czech community here.
“We should take very good care of it so that we keep it. Don’t take it for granted.”
Czech Day may be just once a year.
“But our heritage is all the time,” Benda said. “That’s kind of what I preach. They come, so I know they believe it too.”
MUSIC AND DANCING
The dancing and music of the Czech culture are near and dear to Benda’s heart.
She wants to highlight both as parade marshal for this year’s Czech Fest.
Seventy-one people comprise the Oklahoma Czechs’ folk dance group, and the festival is like their recital where months of practice and preparation are highlighted.
One of Benda’s favorite things to do is polka dance, and she is encouraged by the interest that so many young people have in their heritage.
Through Czech School at Yukon Czech Hall, her students learn about the language, culture and history. It is one of Benda’s most treasured activities.
Her parents Victor and LaVerne (Svejkovsky) Benda were instrumental in founding the local Czech organization that started this Czech Festival in the mid-‘60s.
Mother LaVerne Benda, one of the festival founders, was eight months pregnant with Elaine at the first one.
“When I was young, it was all play and fun. I wasn’t responsible for anything,” Benda said.
Elaine Benda “grew up” at Yukon Czech Hall, dancing every Saturday night with her sister and their friends. She became a member of the Oklahoma Czech Folk Dancers as soon as she was able.
Her mother was the director of the dancers, and as soon as Elaine graduated law school, LaVerne asked her to help with the younger dancers.
When Elaine asked if she could expand the group to include more songs, dances, and other aspects of the Czech heritage and include all ages, her mother said she could do anything as long as it was authentic.
As she got older, Benda took on more responsibility and eventually became the director of all folk dancing (including Beseda) after her mother retired.
Czech Day is a long one for the Oklahoma Czech Dancers after many hard practices.
“My favorite part (of the festival) now is just watching everyone perform and how happy they are,” she said. “It’s their performance to be together and show everyone how much they love it.”
For Elaine, another festival highlight is heading out to Czech Hall for the evening dance when she and her fellow dancers can let loose.
Also for the annual festival, she serves as emcee for the day-long program under the “big tent” outside the Czech Building at Fifth and Cedar. Czech dancers and bands perform throughout the day.
Meanwhile, Elaine has served on the Board of Directors of Oklahoma Czechs and chairs the Bylaw Committee.
She also has followed in the footsteps of not only her parents but two of her great grandfathers in being an active volunteer at Yukon Czech Hall.
She is president of WFLA Lodge Jan Žižka #67 and vice president of Sokol Lodge Karel Havliček.
She serves on the Dance Committee at Yukon Czech Hall, scheduling the bands as her father did for many years, and she regularly volunteers at Saturday night dances.
She is the treasurer of the Yukon Czech Hall partnership.
Elaine also collects Czech kroje and Czech folk music, two things her parents loved dearly.