Darrell and Loren Wilson
Co-chair of OPALGA with Mel
friend, OPALGA leader
hospice volunteer and friend
Nathan Linsk (husband)
Thanks to everyone for being here today.
Mel would have loved this gathering—especially in this place. It’s really hard to believe he’s not here with us in person, isn’t it? But we know his spirit lives in our hearts and memories. And especially he would have loved that so many family members are here, including our children Adam and Charna, their spouses Renee and Angel, the west coast Wilson family who are here, our many sisters-in-law, my brother Deke and the many we count in our family of choice. And friends.
Thanks to Unity Temple for its restoration and how it shines here in our beloved Oak Park.
Dylan Thomas told us, “Do not go gentle into that good night…Rage, rage against the dying of the light…. Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
Mel Wilson was a gentle soul, but continued not to go gentle in all he did. He did blaze like a meteor, and was gay in every sense of the word.
Mel has been the love of my life and my life partner of the past 34 years, legally husband the last 7, but husband in every other way before we registered as domestic partners and bought our house on South Scoville in 1998.
We tried to put many facts about his life in the Program handout for your information. What I hope we share today is stories and reflections on the many aspects of Melvin James Wilson as we celebrate his life.
I think of words to describe him: passionate, persistent, generous, visual, creative, sensitive, extremely hard working and well read, wise, fun, dedicated, a story teller, loving and certainly gorgeous, sensual and handsome. I’d add that building community was his mission as an architect, an activist and as a man.
I met Mel when he was 40 years old, going through so many changes, as was I. This was an immediate bond that went way beyond gay— I was asked by a wise old friend at the time if he could be my intellectual partner as well as a life partner. And he was in so many ways.
Some think Mel was quiet. He was a great listener–that is true. We could be in a crowd or a party and he would sit quietly and absorb everything around him. And then someone would ask him a question or he would venture a comment. And if we let him, incredible knowledge, detail and opinion would pour out. Then you could not stop him from sharing, informing–and provoking.
It was always worth listening to Mel. I did not see him as quiet, I saw him as exuberant.
Mel put up with me, in all my ventures, which often go beyond my roles as a social worker or as a professor. Wherever I would go he was there with me in presence or in spirit, and he still is.
I don’t think I was alone is seeing Mel as a foundation. His belief in me, in Adam and Charna and so many students and colleagues—many of whom are here today–allowed us to thrive. I feel like he was a soft and responsive sponge pushing me forward. We were quite a pair.
I first was attracted to Mel when he spoke up for our rights in a room full of closeted gay men in mixed orientation marriages. But I first began to love him the first time he visited me. My daughter Charna was about 7 months old. As I watched him be with her, play and engage her I saw a beautiful thing and I felt captivated. And much the same happened as I got to know Adam, and Mel and Esther’s hopes for and interactions with Adam.
Charna lived with us on and off, but all through Kindergarten and from age 13-18. I was the responsible parent, but Mel was always there. She didn’t want to speak today but one of the most touching things I have ever experienced was when she and her wife Angel came to visit Mel the last time, and shared with me that she saw Mel as one of her primary parents. He was able to give support always, not always with words but with deeds and affection.
Will Adam and Charna please come forward? I want to say a few words about Mel and marriage. Those who know us well know the challenges that occurred for Mel as he moved from his marriage to Esther to living as an out gay man. I would say he treasured both of his spouses in very special ways, and he wore the wedding ring from his earlier marriage well into our domestic partnership. He told me often he just could not put it aside, it was “a scar” to remember the importance of that marriage, and their divorce was difficult, to say the least. It shows his integrity that he was not willing to let go of this relationship, even under the most trying circumstances. We all eventually joined in a kind of family bound by respect and admiration. I’m sure that’s why when Mel and I had the chance to marry in 2010, it really had a very special meaning to us both. So, I want to give the wedding bands to our children—Adam to have the one from his mother and Charna to have the one Mel and I shared.
Mel was creative. His mind was visual and special. Architecture and gardening were two of his passions. He designed, he built, and he improved whatever he took on. And he made a home for us, building furniture, decks, and space as well as a life together.
I think many know the story of how Mel engaged Oak Park which led to the Oak Park Lesbian and Gay Association. We had circulated a questionnaire to village board candidates asking about HIV, human rights and some economic issues–and to encourage inclusion of sexual orientation into the village’s human dignity policy.
Mel was both strategic and political. One day I came home and Mel had talked to the folks from the two opposing slates. Somehow, he was able to engineer a competition between the two slates about how much they supported the ordinance. We had more coffees—with Mel it was always coffee—and meetings and Mel began to set up testimony for the hearing. That was the first of the networking of the GLBT community in this area, which was pretty invisible and unstructured before that.
Once the ordinance passed, we then had to form an organization to continue the work. The first meeting was in our living room. Soon we had a bunch of co-founders—but I think Mel was the architect of OPALGA, serving as chief instigator, first male co-chair and head of both communications and public policy for many years. Not to mention creating a newsletter for about 15 years, various reports and journals. Building the community. I was proud to stand by his side and try to support his incredible vision and energy. That was also a challenging role.
Another passion was travel. His travel after his work as an architect in Tunisia in the Peace Corps in the 1960s was very broad—he had an around the world ticket one year, and had visited many, many countries. When I began to do international social work it only occurred because of his enthusiasm for global work—and he provided incredible support as we developed our sense of place in East Africa.
We travelled the world together. He expanded my horizons as I know he did for many others.
And though we gave away thousands of books and other stuff when we moved two years ago our home is full of art, architecture, history, classical literature, gay literature, middle eastern and African books, travel books, recordings, and hundreds of videos. Thousands of slides and photographs and stacks of writings—this man could write!
Today would have been Mel’s 75th birthday. His life was way too short but we were privileged to spend almost half of it together.
Mel did not want a funeral. We want this event to be not a solemn occasion but to be a kind of birthday party—even with cake afterwards– and celebration of his life and his legacy. Enjoy and thanks!
Renee Wilson (daughter in law)
“Notes on a family meeting…”
My name is Renee Wilson and I became Mel’s daughter-in-law when I married his son, Adam, about five years ago. We live in downtown Chicago.
In January, Adam and I went to Mel and Nathan’s home. We knew his situation was deteriorating and that he probably had just months left and this conversation was to ask him what he wanted to do with the time that was remaining. These are some of my notes from that conversation.
Mel said “My life has been incredibly rich”
He said to Adam “I like talking about what you’re doing – lately you share a lot with me… your hopes and feelings… what makes you happy… and I’m happy about that… Susie’s always telling me it would make Esther so happy that we all have come together as a family and Adam is happy… If I had a bucket list it would be that I love all of you- Nathan- Esther… I like to think of us freely, comprehensively and positively.
“Nathan has been heroic and stalwart – a constant defender and supporter of me for all these years because he loves me and I love him. That doesn’t mean I don’t care for Esther and I’ve forgotten all our hopes and dreams. I want to convey how wonderful life has been in spite of all the adversity- a very positive feeling about all of us- we are wonderful together in sort of miraculous ways. We should feel joyous about that.”
“I have closure on things- we are what we are, we lived what we lived, discovered what we discovered and here we are- alive and well, not so well, some of us. We should enjoy that. We’re celebrating what our lives were and what they meant.”
These are some of the things that Mel shared. With Adam’s permission I’m going to close by sharing part of a letter he wrote to his Dad at this same time. He wrote “The connection that you and I have rediscovered is meaningful. You and I being together, your presence, your patience, this is among the most beautiful, persistent strands thru my lifespan. It was there in my early days and it is there now.”
Thank you for being here with us today.
Darrell and Loren Wilson (brothers)
Growing-up Melvin was my (Darrell’s) older brother by almost 8 years. He was #2 of a family of 5 boys. I was #4. We were collectively known as the “Wilson Boys”
- #1 son was 2 years Mel’s senior.
- Loren was #3 and came along 5 years after Mel.
- I came along 3 years after that; and,
- #5 came along 2 years after me -12 years from #1 to #5.
Mel shared his reel-to-reel tapes with me of the Kingston Trio (Hang “Down Your Head Tom Dooley”) and sound track for “West Side Story” and later Simon and Garfunkel (Bridge Over Troubled Waters). He liked to watch “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” on television identifying with Dobie but loving to laugh at Maynard G. Krebbs.
When he got old enough to drive he would invite Claude and me to ride with him on this adventure or that. He was practical and I’m sure that he thought that by taking us along he would be able to get the car from Mother and Daddy. He took us on numerous trips:
- Several times north 90 minutes to San Francisco; and,
- West 60 minutes to Monterey and Carmel; and,
- There were even a few 4 hour trips east to Yosemite.
He helped outfit us for and took us on a week-long back packing trip on part of the John Muir Tail up the wall of Yosemite Valley into Little Yosemite Valley and then Evolution Valley.
He never seemed to grow tired of having his little brothers around. Our cousin Edythe, who is about my age, wrote to me saying, “He is one of my favorite cousins who always treated me as a person and not a brat following him around …”
At the end of his first two years of Peace Corps in Tunisia he invited his 3 younger brothers to come spend a month with him in his apartment. I remember:
- Walking down the beach to the tourist hotels to steal toilet paper because TP was a government monopoly and in short supply.
- Learning how to use ‘Turkish’ toilets.
- Taking car trips north to Carthage and Tunis.
- Bus and train trips south to Al Hammamet, Sousse, el Djem, Dougga, Sfax, Gabes, Gafsa.
We saw more of Tunisia than most of its citizens.
On the way home we went through Paris, London, Chicago, and then Expo ’67 – the Montreal World’s Fair. There are so many stories and memories. After dropping us off in California, he went on around the world with stops including Japan and India. Wherever he went, from college all through his trips to Africa he liked to send pictures, post cards, letters, and emails.
In high school Mel dated a girl named Janet Lamb a couple of times. She was a student in the class years between Everett (our oldest brother) and Melvin. But it didn’t work-out and she turned her eyes and heart to Everett. She must have seemed pretty determined to catch Everett because in her senior high school year book Melvin wrote, “To my ‘sister in law’ Ha Ha Hope I see more of you (I bet you do to). … Kids must tease you a lot about your name because I see you’re trying your best to change it.”
Few here ever saw Melvin without a beard. He had kind of a baby face. The story he told me was that he discovered in Tunisia while in his first year of the Peace Corps that he had to cover-up his “baby face” in order to be taken seriously in the office or at the construction job sites.
Mel was more studious than athletic. I don’t remember him playing any sports. Mother used to tell a story that in elementary school while the other kids played kick ball or tag or whatever, Melvin would be behind the back stop drawing pictures of trees and flowers or reading a book. I don’t know if that is true but it seems totally in character.
He grew-up in the time of Lawrence Welk and learned to play the accordion. With that key-boarding skill he would also play piano and chord organ. I loved watching and listening to him play music.
As I reflect, more stories come to mind but I hope that you get the sense that Melvin grew-up as he was as an adult – always as a thoughtful and caring person.
Susie Peters (sister in law)
I’d like to say a few words about Mel, speaking as a representative from the Glaser wing of his life.
When Mel won our sister Esther’s heart so many years ago, he won the heart of our whole family. They made a beautiful life together, most importantly the life of Adam!
They delighted in his every squeal and scribble, and we did too, even though we may have been separated by miles or busy-ness. We heard and saw adorable and accomplished examples of his growth…and Essie and Mel’s delight…by way of phone calls, cassette tapes, letters, and visits. As he grew, they encouraged all his talents and inclinations, whether it was art or skate-boarding. (I remember their “Skateboarding is NOT a Crime” bumper sticker.) They were a loving, lively, adventuresome unit, and so generous about including others in their activities and travels.
When Mel came out, and things inevitably changed for their family, it shifted the dynamics for the extended families too. It would be an understatement to say that we all were heartbroken when Essie and Mel realized they couldn’t stay together under the same roof, but eventually a new structure grew up — separate, but still connected. (I hope Mel would appreciate these architectural metaphors.) A makeover was in order, but there was such a loving foundation, that the home they’d first created together with Adam, was able to shift and grow.
As a heart can be broken, so too, it can be mended, and that’s what happened in our families. Essie admired and embraced how Mel and Nathan were living and leading the LGBT causes and communities, locally and internationally, and they supported her artistic vision, her teaching, and powerful statements through exhibits here and abroad.
Mel was up here at this podium 12 years ago, honoring Essie after she died, and I’m honored to be here doing the same for Mel. If love makes a family, we’ve been lucky to have been included in several loving families in our relationship with Mel, starting with Essie and Mel and Adam, and branching out to Mel and Nathan, Adam and Renee, Charna and Angel…and it continues.
Bruce Williams (friend)
We know about Mel’s architecture, his activism on behalf of the LGBTQ community, his writings, his tireless advocacy on behalf of any person or group experiencing prejudice and hate. We know he constantly kept up with global, national, and local affairs. We know he was a vast repository of wisdom and stories. We know of his writings, his key role in the beginnings of OPALGA and his journeys with Nathan to Africa.
I want to share some thoughts about Mel’s impact on my life. I met Nathan and Mel first in the Gay Lesbian Parents Support Group. In the late 1980’s Nathan and he often welcomed me into their home for many occasions including Thanksgivings. I remember the comfort Mel gave to me as I worked through rough emotional times then.
Today I really want to witness to the Mel of these last few years. These were not easy for Mel as even the act of simple breathing became more and more challenging. I think of the many visits I had in Nathan and Mel’s home. Mel sat in his chair and always welcomed us. We went to restaurants. We went to plays. Visits to our home continued even though it meant negotiating some steps up to our porch and into the house. Always when greeting me, there was a hug, a kiss, and a smile of greeting. That graciousness continued to the end. Lying in his hospice bed, as I walked into his room, I wasn’t sure he would recognize me. He looked up and called out, “Hello, Bruce.” The graciousness never stopped.
Mel knew exactly what was happening to his lungs. Whatever body pain or fearful thoughts he was experiencing, he conveyed a remarkable affirmation of life, a profound affirmation of the people he was with.
This is the Mel of graciousness and life-affirmation that especially now continues to be present for me.
Bekah Levin (Co-chair of OPALGA with Mel)
Good afternoon. 28 years ago, Mel and I had the privilege of being the first male and female co-chairs, of the Oak Park Lesbian and Gay Association. That may sound rather mundane, but at the time, it was not. In 1989, gays and lesbians largely socialized separately. But when Mel (and Nathan) called me to ask if I’d be interested in meeting with them and a small group of individuals, it wasn’t because they wanted to start a new queer social group. Mel had a vision for a group that went far beyond that, starting with creating an organization that could challenge the Village’s elected leadership to address the needs and priorities of its queer residents. But to do that, we had to come out of the closet, a prospect that carried great risk, in terms of our jobs, our homes and our families. Doing so as a group of gay men AND lesbians had the potential of having greater impact than then could be accomplished by gay men alone.
Co-chairing with Mel was a joy. We ran the organization as a collective, with all decision-making by consensus. Sounds like a lesbian organization, wouldn’t you say? Mel was a great leader because he was smart, he was strategic, and he was articulate, whether he was discussing our next moves with the police department, schools, or health department, testifying in front of the Village Trustees, speaking with the media, or writing his MANY articles and editorials in Windy City Times, the Wednesday Journal, or in our own high-quality monthly newsletter that was closer to a mini-newspaper, than an internal organizational update.
Sometimes, when you work with highly skilled, smart, experienced and articulate people, they dominate the space, and others who want to share that space have to take a more secondary role. That this did not happen was part of the beauty of working with Mel. Mel left as much space as anyone wanted or needed, and was always willing to share the page, the stage or the discussion and debate with anyone who wanted to be a part of it. Mel took pride and delight in what WE were creating for ourselves, for Oak Park, and for the larger community, and his handprint and voice are imbedded in all of them.
Jim Kelly (friend, OPALGA leader)
After 26 years together, my husband Bruce and I got married in August of 2104. Today, I’m wearing my wedding shirt to honor all the Mel Wilsons and Nathan Linsks and organizations like OPALGA whose efforts greatly contributed to making marriage equality the law of the land.
Who in this room remembers this Apple computer? Mel had one of these, and this image conjures up my earliest and most lasting recollections of him.
It’s a powerful image for me in two ways. First, Mel was an incredibly thoughtful, insightful and approachable documenter of OPALGA’s first 20 years or so, and his words poured out into this and subsequent computers with impressive regularity.
He always thought of OPALGA as a local expression of the larger LGBT civil rights movement that became transformational with the Stonewall Riots in New York in the summer of 1969 – 20 years before he and Nathan convened a number of us to organize a group in Oak Park.
This larger context was imbued in his writing, and his intent was always, always to educate, never to alienate. Although he chronicled all of OPALGA’s activities, he wrote with a much larger audience in mind – the straight community that was predisposed to be our allies once we became visible.
There was passion in his words, but he was never strident (at least in print). Thanks to Mel, OPALGA has a written history composed of hundreds of newsletters, bulletins, essays and letters to the editor.
The second reason this image is so powerful to me is because of the mailing parties we had in the early days – when snail mail was the only mail. In Mel and Nathan’s dining rooms (they moved a few times), we would gather to fold newsletters that Mel had sent and retrieved from the Printing Store, stuff and seal envelopes, apply mailing labels, and affix non-profit rate stamps on them.
Finally, we would sort them by zip code, bundle them accordingly and load them on to post office trays for delivery to the back door of the main post office. Then we’d have pizza.
I always felt an incredible sense of belonging at these events – experiencing both a common purpose and an understanding that we were making history. These events sealed our friendship and camaraderie as tightly as the envelopes we’d stuffed. There are people in this room that remember that too.
However, there’s a continuing challenge that even Mel couldn’t solve: how to pronounce our acronym. In the early days, we were the Oak Park Lesbian and Gay Association. How do you pronounce an acronym that begins with OPL?
As our membership grew with people who lived in adjacent communities and beyond, we changed the name to the Oak Park AREA Lesbian and Gay Association That gave us another welcomed vowel, but left us with two pronunciations – both still used to this day. “Is it O palga” or “o PALga”? To that debate, I think Mel would have said that we’ve got more important work still to do.
Patrick Curtin (hospice volunteer and friend)
I first met Mel in my capacity as a hospice volunteer for JourneyCare. Mel was sitting on the couch in the den, tethered to an oxygen tank. He motioned for me to sit while he struggled with his breath.
As I waited, I noticed a large black and white photograph on the wall near him of a boy and three men. It could have been taken yesterday or fifty years ago.
The group was poised in front of a home that looked like it belonged on a Great Plaines farm. The fair-haired child seemed to be smiling at an unseen world. There was a man that appeared to be in his late 20s with a neatly trimmed beard that a hipster or beatnik would sport. He looked directly at the camera.
The weathered skin on a man that appeared to be in his late 40s belied a life of hard work. He was gazing out at the distance.
The oldest man gazed at the other men with an implacable, sphinxlike expression. I scanned the faces to determine if this was a family picture or an iconic image of the West.
When Mel regained his breath, I asked him about the picture. In a whisper, he confirmed it was a family photograph of his son, Adam, himself, his father and grandfather.
Over the next few weeks, I discovered that Mel enjoyed telling stories. Like the photo of his son seeming to smile at an unseen world, Mel talked about his fascination as a child with architecture and the support he received to achieve his dream.
Like the photo of himself looking directly at the camera, he talked about the period in his life when he embarked to build a life on his own. He fulfilled his dream by working with Mies Van der Rohe; designing buildings in Africa, marrying and welcoming his son, Adam.
Like the photo of his father, whose weathered skin belied a life of hard work, Mel talked about the lengthening shadow in mid-life that led to profound transformations in his family, personal life and career.
Like the photo of his grandfather looking at the others with an implacable, sphinxlike expression, I remember the twinkle in his eyes and shrug of his shoulders as if to acknowledge the beauty and messiness of life.
The last few visits Mel stopped telling stories. He struggled with breathing and the most important thing was to be close to Nathan. The story I will carry in my heart, when I think of Mel, is the twinkle in his eye and shrug of his shoulders as if to acknowledge the beauty and messiness of life.
Mike Underhill (friend)
Friends, we have heard from a most wonderfully diverse group of individuals. Their perspectives are different, but the conclusion is unanimous: Mel Wilson had exceptional gifts and generously shared them, especially with queer people on the so-called margins of society. How might we respond to these testimonies about Mel?
Perhaps we are thankful. Relationship with Mel was a treasure – and was fun. Mel was indeed a blessing. Perhaps we are sad. Mel’s death creates a void that is not easily or quickly filled. We are sad that Mel is no longer with us. Perhaps we are angry. So many of the values for which Mel lived are today under attack. It is, indeed, a time of resistance.
Thankfulness, sadness, anger — there is no one correct response.
Today I suggest to you that it is also most appropriate to be proud. Several corners of the world are better because we were together with Mel Wilson.
We know that it takes a village to raise a child. Well, friends, it also takes a village to raise an agent of visionary social change like Mel Wilson. Look around: we are Mel’s village. We are those who shaped and were shaped by Mel Wilson. And those of us privileged to be in Unity Temple today are merely the tip of the iceberg of people around the world who journeyed with Mel. We learned from Mel, and Mel learned from us. Mel changed us, and we changed Mel. In challenging moments we encouraged Mel and Mel encouraged us to keep on going and growing. In other moments we laughed, and we most certainly danced.
Together, we explored many visions of new relationships, new buildings, new journalistic investigations, new lives, new possibilities for justice and peace, and new communities. Just look around: the Mel Wilson community for radical social change continues to flourish. Most assuredly, I encourage you today to be proud. It is time to celebrate. Several corners of the world are better because we were together with Mel Wilson and Mel was together with us.
Melvin James Wilson.
We miss you.
We are in resistance.
And we are so proud of you.
Amen and Shalom.