William Waybourn | Contributing Writer
John Thomas always wanted to “go big” to recognize World AIDS Day. Although he said, we should realize every day was “World AIDS Day,” this is more about John’s last day, Wednesday, January 20, 1999.
One afternoon years earlier, John Thomas and I met his sisters-in-law for lunch. Everyone called John Thomas “John Thomas,” using both his first and last name. Even though John had two brothers, one of the women remarked how “John is closer to you than to his brothers.” As we were close, I took it as a compliment. Having a close friend is a pure gift. John and I had met under unlikely circumstances. I asked him at a bar how he liked his job at the Dallas Times Herald, and he was surprised that I knew about his position as vice president. He wanted to learn more. Later that same night, we met my husband Craig Spaulding for dinner, and it was the beginning of our long and close friendship.
When we met in 1979, John was an effective and handsome recruiter for the Dallas Gay Alliance or simply “DGA” (today known as the Dallas Gay & Lesbian Alliance or “DGLA.”) He was head of the membership committee. He assured me that, if I would join, I wouldn’t have to do any work. Ha! I had a small marketing business and owned one of the first computers that could sort data. He would come to my office and spend endless hours entering names and addresses. The data was held on five-inch floppy disks with limited space, so he had to split the alphabetical list into several parts as the list grew. John used the computer to build the database for the DGA, the Dallas Black Tie Dinner, the Turtle Creek Chorale, and of course, his personal use. He was so organized.
John introduced Craig and me to fellow activists Bill Nelson and Terry Tebedo, which became another long-standing friendship and later a business partnership when we opened the Crossroads Market in 1980. You can’t be among activists like John, Bill, and Terry unless you join them. Bill first asked me to join the board of the Foundation for Human Understanding and later the DGA board. I didn’t know that he had grand designs to open a storefront community center on Cedar Springs (the “Center”) and restructure the DGA, moving it from a purely political organization to a service agency that delivered real services. The advent of AIDS put demands on our meager resources, but it also accelerated our growth. Soon we had a food bank, a health clinic, and a legal hospice to help with last-minute wills, a meeting space, and professional advocacy. The various committees of the DGA were like “tentacles” that reached out into the community, organized events, and held fundraisers. The organization mushroomed.
In 1986, Bill decided to run for Dallas City Council against a closeted gay man who never voted right on our issues. At one televised forum, the closeted candidate was confronted by the moderator, and in response, said, “I’m not gay, but I’m happy.” Bill didn’t win the election, but he threw his votes to a more acceptable candidate (Lori Palmer), who did win.
The DGA was growing both in membership and stature. As the next DGA president, I recommended that the board recognize the leadership capabilities of John Thomas to become the Center’s first executive director and ex-officio member of the board.
So much was happening with AIDS in Dallas – it was a difficult and complicated time. There were few support services nor many readily available healthcare facilities for our growing indigent population of persons with AIDS. Demonstrations, protests, candlelight vigils were held, lawsuits filed (and won), grant requests written. We even opened the first AIDS research clinic in Dallas. We had a strong support network, a vibrant food bank, and we recycled valuable medications, including experimental drugs not available elsewhere. John had an imposing presence and would get arrested when we traveled to protests in other cities, blocked traffic intersections, and promoted civil disobedience. I had a great photo of him sitting atop a bus at the National Institute of Health in Washington – I had no clue how he got up there.
By the time my tenure as DGA president ended, I had realized the need to help qualified LGBTQ candidates across the nation run for public, so I started the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund; the only caveat was that Craig and I had to move to Washington to run it.
The Dallas FHU organization (now the Resource Center of Dallas) was in good hands with John, and we maintained frequent trips and took vacations together. John Thomas became one of the founding board members of the newly constituted Victory Fund.
In the late 90s, I was in my office in Washington, D.C., when John called me to tell me that he had some “news.” Not knowing what to expect, I closed my door. I heard him say, “I just tested positive.” “For what? How is that possible?” I asked. John had been super careful, or at least he said he had been careful, but his fear that day was not about himself, but how it would look in the media for the head of the AIDS Resource Center, a leading advocate for AIDS prevention, to become HIV positive.
The rest of the conversation was a blur as I rolled over in my mind who might have been “the person” to infect John. Finding someone else to blame was a typical response. Still, John was confident that he had contracted a “late bloomer” version of the virus that had only recently manifested itself as a “head cold” that wouldn’t go away. John got tested at the Center’s Clinic and said that both the Clinic’s nurse and the doctor had independently verified the test results.
Ever “Mr. Optimism,” John’s reaction was one I had heard many times from other AIDS patients: “I will beat this.”
Before hanging up, I said, “I want to see you. Can you come to D.C.?”
John arrived a few days later, and we discussed various treatment options. The Clinic’s doctor suggested that John should try to get into some clinical trials. Unfortunately, with no history of opportunistic infections, it was difficult to find an experimental trial that would enroll him. Many AIDS patients took AZT or DDT, the few medications thought to extend lives (although that wasn’t entirely true). John’s optimism was unyielding, and he expected to continue working as head of the Center.
Unfortunately, John had contracted a strain of HIV that was most resistant to treatment, and he began to lose weight. He got sicker and sicker. By 1998, John was, as he said, “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” To keep his spirits up, I flew to Dallas almost every weekend, relieving caretakers and friends. Some weekends, when he felt like it, we would go to a nearby movie theater — it didn’t matter what was playing. We walked in the middle of some movies and walked out of many others because he was just too tired.
Seeing him week-to-week, I was acutely aware of his physical deterioration. Friends would say, “John looks good today, don’t you think?” … but I knew his body was failing. John told me he was cold, yet it was the middle of summer. He bought a thick and bright yellow Versace robe from Neiman Marcus. I told him that he looked like “Big Bird.” John was never into designer labels, but that robe certainly kept him warm.
Mostly we just talked, covering every subject imaginable. I would pick up food (Chinese, Italian, hamburgers, pizza, anything I thought he would eat), but he was losing the battle against the “bug” that had invaded his body. He was skinny and growing more fragile. Once tall and exceptionally handsome, it was painful to watch John’s body morph into that of an older man. In late May 1998, John said he had decided he would cease all medications – essentially taking himself off life support. I never tried to argue with him, as we had already had “life after death” discussions, and I knew he believed strongly in his decision. I also knew he was on the verge of giving up.
Ironically, after going off his meds, John initially rebounded physically. His health seemingly improved, and he was feeling better. Maybe he was onto something by giving up his meds, but then it became apparent that any improvement was only temporary. The virus soon reasserted itself with a vengeance.
Leaving on Sunday nights to go back to D.C. became more and more emotional. My visits became increasingly stressful; friends were outwardly worried about his condition, including his mental state. John would go to sleep in mid-sentence, then moments later would awaken and ask, “What were we talking about?” As I prepared to leave, John started to cry, so I reassured him that I would be back in a few days, and we could go to another movie. This man, ever so confident in his professional and personal life, had turned a dark corner. I felt helpless at his suffering.
I have written many stories about John, including his eulogy, but I have never shared his last few days until now.
On one of my last two visits, John was even more emotional about my leaving — not unexpected, as we never knew if or when we would see each other again. But I could tell that John was having a tough time; I asked him what was wrong. John told me he was afraid. I was taken aback by his fear, but I didn’t know what to do. I mentioned my concerns to others, including Mike Anglin, Dickie Weaver, Jack Evans and George Harris, because they also saw John frequently. None of them had sensed anything out of the ordinary.
On my next visit, John seemed better. As dementia among AIDS patients was not uncommon, I ascribed his expressions of fear to his mind’s being affected by the virus.
A few days later, after my last flight to D.C., our mutual friend Tim Seelig called and said, “You probably should come now if you want to see John one more time.” Even though John had not been doing well, and we had talked about my coming the next weekend, Tim’s call caught me by surprise, and gave me a sense of urgency to move up my flight. On the plane to Dallas, I sat looking out the window. It was cold and bleak. I didn’t want to be there. I wasn’t prepared to lose him. What a terrible time to die, I thought. As with the earlier deaths of Terry and Bill, dying is never as peaceful as one likes to imagine, and I had every expectation that John’s death would be the same.
I thought of others, including Terry’s last request to have his funeral in a “small place” because he feared no one would come. He was wrong, of course, as it was standing room only with people paying their respects, including John White, the Lieutenant Governor of Texas.
Bill’s final days were equally difficult. He told me he doubted my ability to get through his eulogy without blubbering, and he was partially correct. He didn’t anticipate my humorous reaction to the organist’s decision to walk out in the middle of his service. I watched as she slammed shut the organ, removed the key, and walked out … apparently upset that the scheduled music was not religious enough for her.
On another occasion, delivering a eulogy for a good friend, it occurred to me that my words had not only revealed that he was gay but that he had also died of AIDS, much to the surprise of many of the mourners. He had left it to me to “out” him.
I thought of my friend Mike Hearn’s final days, where his family kept us from visiting Mike, so I asked a gay priest with a collar for help. He dropped off a bottle of Bailey’s Irish Cream to Mike’s family, pleased that a priest had come to visit Mike. The priest entered ICU and told Mike that his other “family” of friends was outside, albeit separated from his family. John and Mike also shared a lot of clothes, including one favorite shirt that frequently moved between their closets. Before he became incapacitated, Mike had dropped off his laundry. Weeks later, John retrieved the laundry, including, he presumed, the shared shirt – the bill was over $350, but John paid it. Once home, he discovered that the shirt was not there, so John called a mutual friend who remembered the shirt and said, “Oh, I know exactly where it is — it’s the shirt that Mike requested to be buried in.”
No one can predict exactly when someone will die. Bill lingered for so long, it was painful to watch. In his final hour, his mother, Jean Nelson, told him, “Bill, you have fought the good fight. You can let go now.” Bill died within minutes.
I had crazy thoughts as the plane landed in Dallas: maybe if I delayed my arrival, John would wait, too, and not die.
So, I stayed in my seat until everyone else had deplaned. The flight attendant asked if I needed help. My cell phone rang, and it was our mutual friend, Karen Estes, “He’s asking for you,” she said.
I was so conflicted, still believing that I could impede his death, so I took my time to get to the rental car. I hoped that traffic would be so heavy that it would delay my arrival. Pulling into the parking lot at Baylor, I sat in the car. I was in slow motion from the vehicle to the hospital. The escalator ride seemed longer than ever before, as I had been there for others. But this time, it was different.
As I turned the corner to the long hallway to John’s room, I recognized the faces of John’s friends, all crying. As I neared his room, our friend Karen grabbed my arm and said, “John has been waiting for you.” If John is waiting for me, then I shouldn’t be here, I thought. Crazy thoughts ran through my head how to save my friend.
John’s brother Bob met me at the door. Several others were in the room, but I only remember Karen, Tim Seelig and Lory Masters. John was so pale. I put my hand on his chest and said, “John, I’m here.” I held his hand, and he took one look at me. Instead of taking another breath, he just exhaled. That was his last breath.
Our friend Lory would have none of it and began rubbing John’s feet, “Breathe John, breathe. Please breathe.” Tim was on the other side of John’s bed. Both Tim and I had been present when others died, so we knew that the mind doesn’t stop simultaneously with the heart. We told John how much he was loved and to have a safe journey. My last words were, “You have done all you can. You can let go now.”
John had the most brilliant blue eyes, and they seemed even more brilliant that day as I reached to close them. A nurse listened for his heartbeat and checked for a pulse. She said we could stay as long as we wanted.
Someone handed me John’s “Big Bird” yellow robe, saying, “John would want you to have this.”
We all stood there for a few minutes as news quickly spread and other friends began to arrive and line the hallway. The accurate measurement of a person is the depth of final respect shown by others.
I got back to my car and wanted to bend the steering wheel into a pretzel. I drove to Bill’s and Terry’s gravesite in northwest Dallas to let them know that John was on his way.
I stayed in Dallas for the funeral and delivered the eulogy. The church was filled to a standing room only, more than 1,000 people. Even though I had given the eulogy for other friends, including Bill, this one was the hardest.
I thought we would grow old together. But as with other friends, AIDS cheated Craig and me of that opportunity. There isn’t a day that I don’t think about John Thomas, and Bill, Terry and our other friends who lost their battles against AIDS; how they lived, and the stories we could have shared.
As it turned out, John’s fear during my last two visits was real and not related to any sort of dementia. After the funeral, I learned that somehow, assisted by a friend, John had gone to his bank only days earlier to sign papers that would cash out his IRA accounts intended for his sister. The banker was so alarmed by John’s weakened state and condition that he called John’s brother, but the call went to voicemail. With the papers in front of him, John signed them. The IRAs were drained, and the Center, the beneficiary of John’s condo, had to pay the financial penalties for early withdrawal.
I live with the regret of not believing in John’s fear of what was happening.
A few weeks later, Lory came to Washington with her allotment of John’s ashes. Several close friends had shared his ashes, as John was a big guy.
We put Lory’s portion in a paper bag, and the two of us went to the edge of the Tidal Basin. We had decided against throwing his ashes over the White House fence and getting arrested. John Thomas and I had already been arrested once at the White House during the protest of Clinton’s signing of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” into law. Plus, there were signs everywhere reminding us that it was against the law to put anything into the Tidal Basin, also Federal property.
So, right before sundown, we untied the bag and tossed it into the water.
Instead of sinking to the bottom, a large white cloud began to form on the calm surface. Who knew ashes would float?
A kid seeing it yelled, “Mom, come look, something’s happening in the water.” Then more tourists came over, and a park police officer. No one could figure out the anomaly as the cloud spread majestically across the water.
Every year the cherry blossoms grow more and more colorful and pink, and John’s DNA is in each bloom.
Today is World AIDS Day. Do something.
Lory was coming to Dallas with her allotment of John’s ashes. As close friends, we all got some, as Joh
What a beautiful testimony to John Thomas’ amazing life and legacy! It should also be noted that John is remembered daily by the ringing of the bells in the John Thomas Bell Wall, a National AIDS Memorial at the Cathedral of Hope UCC in Dallas. The names of more than 1500 church members, including John Thomas, are electronically inscribed in the Bell Wall Memorial which can be seen by every flight into and out of Love Field.
This is wonderful, Willam. I can say little more, as tears are clouding the screen. John Thomas will always have a piece of my lesbian heart, which has very limited space for men. He certainly expanded the boundaries. Thank you.