While working in corporate philanthropy in South California, Randy Lankford routinely hobnobbed with well-known celebrities such as Martha Stewart, John Kennedy Jr., Billy Zane, and Marion Ross of “Happy Days” fame. But after Lankford retired from his AT&T communications job, he traded it all in for a life making San Antonio nonprofit organizations shine like Hollywood stars.

Lankford, 66, died suddenly Jan. 14 just as he was preparing to celebrate the fifth year of BexarFest, the nonprofit he co-founded to join fellow nonprofits in need of messaging help with high school students eager to learn the skills needed to tell their stories.

Each year, Lankford enlisted his own nonprofit TRL Productions in fundraising for the annual high school video festival. He sought out video production programs at San Antonio high schools to participate, with students learning real-world skills in producing three-minute promotional videos for designated nonprofit organizations.

Student videographers would then have their films screened for a public audience and compete for awards and scholarships.

Lankford died at home presumably of a heart attack, said his wife, Linda, who administered CPR until emergency medical technicians arrived. After 45 minutes, she said, they were unable to revive him.

Because planning already was well underway for BexarFest, Linda Lankford said the festival will go on as planned, with a free virtual presentation Feb. 24 under the direction of Perla Rivera, who was appointed interim executive director following Lankford’s death, and Buddy Calvo, board president of TRL Productions.

The “TRL” in the name stands for The Right Light, which is about “shining a spotlight on these nonprofits who may otherwise not have the opportunity to share their stories,” Rivera said.

With limited budgets, many small charitable organizations cannot afford the $5,000 to $10,000 it costs to have a high-quality promotional video made. Beginning in 2017, Lankford raised funds from area philanthropists to support his efforts and established connections with area high schools to have their students make the videos while learning about their community.

The first Bexar County High School Film Festival featured 21 student videos presented at the Santikos Mayan Palace Theatre. In 2018, the festival graduated to the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts as BexarFest, with 30 schools involved. The festival grew to include 40 stories in 2019 and 2020, complete with a new bear claw logo.

Will Callahan, an audio visual instructor at Thomas Jefferson High School, has participated in the program since its beginning. He said that with many high school students tending to focus narrowly on school and events in their own neighborhoods, “they don’t see what’s really going on in the city. [BexarFest] gives them an opportunity to see what other people are going through, or what these nonprofits are offering the community, how they can help.”

Working closely with nonprofits such as Meals on Wheels, Snack Pak 4 Kids, Texas Burn Survivor Society, and the Animal Defense League gives students rare insight into hunger, stray and abused animals, underserved communities, disabled residents, and the arts throughout Bexar County. “It does change them a lot,” Callahan said.

Jefferson student Samaira Ramos participated in last year’s video on the Children’s Shelter, which garnered awards for Best Picture, the San Antonio Report-sponsored Best Storytelling award, and Best Editing, a particularly important category given that videos must be kept to three minutes or less.

Ramos did interviews and camera work for the 2020 video, but will lead the editing for this year’s video on the Down Syndrome Association of South Texas, she said. Her potential future solidified in her mind during the BexarFest awards ceremony at the Tobin Center, she said, when the video was screened in front of a full house.

“It was really fun shooting all that stuff,” she said of the process of making the video, but seeing it “on the big screen” at the Tobin brought home the realization that “this is really impactful.”

Learning about the nonprofit Children’s Shelter also made a personal impact on her, Ramos said. “I didn’t know that they did so much for the community until we worked on that video,” she said. “And I’m glad that we got to give that information to everyone who saw the video, because I had no idea that they did all of that.”

Following Lankford’s death, his wife received an email from Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, who assured her that BexarFest would remain at the Tobin Center in future years, as one of 10 annual community events that benefit from rental fees provided by the county.

Though Lankford had been openly preparing to hand off BexarFest to the board and new leadership, his wife said both fervently hoped it would continue to thrive.

Rivera assured that it will. “This was his legacy,” she said. “This was the last thing he was talking about. … To honor him, we want to make sure that we continue BexarFest, not only this year, but in the future.”

Linda Lankford is grateful that the festival will continue, though she admitted it will be different without her husband’s hands-on presence. “He was a very special person and very creative. He’ll be missed,” she said.

Lankford, originally from Brownwood in north central Texas, is survived by sister Diann McClinton in Texarkana and brother Jamie Lankford in Houston.

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...