One evening in 1978, Hans and Nancy Benning attended a church social in the San Fernando Valley, but took a seat when the dancing began. That's when they met another non-dancing couple — Chuck and Charla Pereau — and the four of them got to talking about this and that.
The Bennings told their new friends about how they met at a violin-making school in Germany and owned a music shop on Ventura Boulevard. The Pereaus had a pretty interesting story too. Chuck was an L.A. city fireman and Charla was a homemaker who also oversaw a Mexican orphanage that she and Chuck had established 10 years earlier, after adopting a Mexican child and making trips to Baja with donated church goods.
A Mexican orphanage? Hans and Nancy, who believe that faith and service are inseparable, were impressed. So they drove south across the border, cruised past Ensenada and kept going another 2 1/2 hours through mountains and valleys — all the way down to where roads turn to dust and an orphanage offers a second chance to children of misfortune.
Thirty-four years later, the Bennings are still going back to the little town of Vicente Guerrero, usually once every two weeks.
"It's a huge part of our lives," Nancy told me one day at Benning Violins, adding that she and Hans had sponsored and nurtured several Mexican children they now consider a part of their extended family. "We've been working at the orphanage since 1979, and I taught violin there for 18 years. Hans is in charge of a men's rehab center, which he calls the rancho, and he's building a music studio in a prison."
You'd think the Bennings were in their 20s or 30s, for all their energy. Their trips to Mexico run from Sunday to Wednesday each time, and the moment they get home, they dig into work that has piled up at their violin shop.
But Hans is 70 and Nancy 72. And rather than slow down, they've devoted even more time to their mission in Mexico as they've gradually ceded daily operations of the violin shop to their son, Eric.
I asked if I could tag along on one of their trips, and Hans said sure. He thought he could even get me into the Mexican prison, but I had my doubts. When he called me back, he said it had all been arranged. The Bennings have forged so many bonds in three decades of charity work, their goodwill opens doors. Even at a prison.
Hans, who was born in Germany and speaks German-accented English and Spanish, told me to be at the Benning home in Sherman Oaks at precisely 4 a.m. on a Sunday in October. He said he would already have headed south on his own, at precisely 3 a.m., in a truck carrying tools and supplies. Nancy always follows him one hour later in a Chevy Tahoe, sometimes carrying a cargo of restored and donated instruments for orphans and other students.
"You'll get to Ensenada at 7:10 and we'll have breakfast together," Hans said.
I noted that he didn't say we'd arrive at "around 7." They've made this trip literally hundreds of times, so there was no guesswork involved. We picked up Charla Pereau on the way, at her home in Laguna Woods, and Chuck loaded some food and other supplies into the Tahoe for us to deliver to the orphanage. Charla, now in her 80s, has made more than 1,000 trips to Baja since the '60s.
Hans was off by two minutes. We met up with him in Ensenada at 7:12, and were joined at breakfast by a young man named Tito Quiroz.
"He's practically like another son to us," said Nancy, who (with Hans) has three sons and five grandchildren.
The Bennings met Tito, now 27, when he was a young lad whose parents worked at the orphanage. Tito wanted to take violin lessons, but Nancy told him he was a little too young.
With that, Tito burst into tears, and Nancy couldn't handle it. So she began teaching Tito when he was 8 or 9.
"Right away, he was one of my best students," said Nancy.
Today, Tito is an accomplished musician, and he's passing along the gift Nancy gave him to the next generation. In her honor, he established and runs a music academy in Ensenada, a city that offered little formal training in classical music before Tito began teaching out of his garage five years ago.
With hustle and charm, and lots of donated instruments from the Bennings and others, Tito has recruited hundreds of students and outgrown two small studios, doing business now in a spacious two-story building in downtown Ensenada. He and his students perform at retirement centers, orphanages and special events, and he also teaches music at an Ensenada prison — the same prison where Hans is building a studio.
And the name of Tito's music school?
Benning Academia de Musica.