I wrote a speech with sharing it aloud at Gary’s 70th birthday party in mind. The opportunity didn’t arise, and not wanting to interrupt an event Gary had so carefully planned, I didn’t deliver it. Instead I printed the speech and sent it to Gary right after the party. Then, after reading Gary’s Aug. 2 blog post in which he noted “There are times when I should be interrupted, not left to my own devices, ignored. I don’t know when those times are. But I do suspect others do,” I realized that I was a “suspected” who didn’t say anything. I asked Gary what he’d think of a guest blogger to deliver the undelivered speech. Gary agreed.
– Josh Feyen
I have known Gary for nearly 25 years. To the best of our collective recollection, Gary and I met in June, 1995 at a gay pride event in the Fireside Lounge in the UW-Milwaukee Union. Today the specifics are vague, but what isn’t vague is that Gary and I took to one another right away. This was the era before cell phones, texting and even easy access to email, but somehow, we kept in touch. Not long after meeting one another, Gary asked me to be on the youth advisory board of a group he was just starting, Diverse & Resilient. I participated on the board for a couple of years, working with Gary as he grew the idea from the dispenser of a few $5,000 mini-grants to the start of the much larger organization it is today. These youth board meetings and social interactions, including rides home when I didn’t have a car, furthered our growing friendship.
I also recall several occasions when we met, Gary gave me a small, pocket-size “How to Begin Re-evaluation Counseling” booklet. I looked it up; today it costs $1. The booklet was made up of a dozen pages with a brief description of RC, some listening guidelines and some frequently asked questions.
I recall two things about that booklet. First, I kept losing my copy — and Gary kept giving me another one after he asked if I had read it – and I admitted I hadn’t. Seriously, he must have ordered a case of them, and you know, this man is persistent when he sees something good.
AND, I remember finally reading that little booklet while commuting on the bus, and wondering, “What is this thing this guy keeps talking about?” At some point after this, Gary shared that he was assisting the teacher of an introductory RC class, and invited me to join. By this time, maybe a year into our friendship, I had already come to respect Gary, and he was pretty sure this co-counseling was a good thing, and I had no other excuse. That was sometime in 1996.
Gary is generous. I have the honor of being one of three people who are part of Gary’s end of life team. I like to describe it as Kurt gets Gary when he’s ill (health care power of attorney) and Jason takes care of Gary’s money if he’s unable to do it himself, but I jump in after Gary’s dead as the estate executor. And as Gary describe it to me, “You’re going to have a lot of fun giving money away.” He has strategically found organizations that share his ideas, philosophies and dreams, and has plans to give them much of his final estate. He’s also built relationships with them now, getting to know not only the organizations but the people who run them. Generous.
Gary is a thoughtful teacher, often by example. Back in the late 90’s I was volunteering on the first board of directors for the Milwaukee LGBT Community Center. One of the roles of a director was to raise money for the organization. My task was to ask 10 friends of mine for a contribution, including Gary. As with these kinds of asks, there is a protocol: have lunch, small talk, lay out the organization’s aspirations and financial need, and then ask for a donation. What I remember about that conversation is not the ask, nor his answer, but that at the end of the meal Gary insisted on paying for lunch. He explained that if someone is going to donate to an organization they believe in, they are also going to support those who are working for it. In other words, he didn’t want me, as the person asking 10 people, to have to pay for 10 lunches. He also talked about how buying the meal confirms good stewardship of their own gift, it’s a way to say “thank you” to the volunteer who is doing the asking, and his paying the bill is yet one more way for him to support the nonprofit. This has stuck with me since, and is an approach I take with many interactions I have with people, and is strong evidence of how powerful Gary’s teaching by example can be.
Gary is real. Have you been following Gary’s blog in just the last few days as he’s been talking about the uncomfortable topics of sex, death and money? Or, how early after Paul’s death Gary talked about death, loss and grief in ways that many of us hesitate to approach. I appreciate Gary’s interest in and commitment to keeping it real.
Gary knows how to appreciate people. I remember a dinner at Gary’s house that celebrated the conclusion of one of the youth board terms. Six or seven young adults and Gary sat around the table when Gary introduced me to an entirely new way to appreciate people – and if you’ve even worked or volunteered with Gary, you know what happens next. One at a time, the group shared specific appreciations for each member of the group. And then, counter to what you might expect, that person was the last to offer an appreciation to the next person so they could A) spend a little more time reveling in the wash of love they just received and B) so they could compose themselves for an appreciation of the next recipient. Gary sure does know how to appreciate someone.
Gary is committed to supporting, encouraging and mentoring young adults. When I go to events that Gary has organized, or events that are about Gary, I appreciate how many young people are there. Until this past semester, Gary has taught at UW-Milwaukee for decades. He’s told me amazing stories of the transformation he’s witnessed in people in his classes. I’ve seen this myself, as a young adult on that first youth advisory board for Diverse & Resilient. Gary has made sure that his life is full of many generations of people. He’s reminded me that one of the reasons is because so many from his cohort died early when HIV was destroying men his age. And having lots of young people in his life keeps him young as well, and definitely keeps him up to date – Gary knows what’s new, lyrics to the latest songs and what everyone is watching on TV. Gary is absolutely committed to young people in his life.
In addition to youth, there are lots and lots of groups I could call out who Gary keeps close, but there is one other group I want to notice today. Gary is committed to having people of color in his life. From the person who cares for his dog when he’s away, or the home health care workers that worked with Paul, or the folks he hired at Diverse & Resilient, and many other intersections, Gary gets to know people not just as service providers or employees or friends, but as human beings sharing the same time and space with him. He’s committed to ending racism.
These are just a few things I appreciate about our friend, Gary, on this, his 70th birthday. I love you Gary.