On the Scene with Bill Wilson – We ARE family

By Bill Wilson
Sentinel Photojournalist
Bill Wilson © 2011

My father’s side of the family has Quaker roots going back to William Penn and the original land grant that formed what became the state of Pennsylvania. The Quakers have no formal ministers or priests to administer rituals at the time of death. My mother’s side of the family were devoted Methodists. When my maternal grandfather died my grandmother spared no expense or effort to honor him. There were three nights of viewing his open casket that I missed because my parents didn’t want my sister and I to miss school. When we arrived for the Saturday morning funeral services and burial my grandmother asked that we be taken to see our grandfather. I was 14 years old at the time. I can still recall clearly the image of him in his casket, mainly because he looked better than he did while alive. The experience was the impetus for many family discussions about what we wanted when we died. My mother was determined that there be no open casket at her funeral, and then after my grandmother died, she announced that there would be no casket because she wanted to be cremated.

My parents ready to play golf with my Grandfathers. (left to right) William West Wilson, his son, David Wilson, his wife,Virginia Berkhouse Wilson, and her father, Harvey Berkhouse. Photo from Wilson family collection

It wasn’t until I started taking the training courses for being a buddy for a person with AIDS offered by the Whitman Walker Clinic in Washington, DC, (where I was living at the time) that I recognized those types of family conservations where not common place. Many people feel that talking about death is just too morbid or depressing. In the thirty years I have been losing friends to AIDS I’ve come to realize that funerals and memorial services take on the personality of the person who died whether they planned it that way or not. Sometimes it is so obvious that the family hasn’t a clue and other times the support the family gives is amazing.

When Tom Dudley’s survivors where mentioned in his obituary his father’s name was preceded by a military title. I really didn’t know what to expect because I had been to so many services where it wasn’t even acknowledged that the person was gay or that he died of Aids. I happened to be handing out programs in the lobby of the church when Tom’s lover entered the church. Tom’s sister came up to him and asked if he was going to be singing with the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington. When he said that he wasn’t, she replied, “Good because we have saved a seat next to Mom and Dad for you.” Maybe by today’s standards standing by your gay child isn’t a big deal, but you have to remember that twenty or thirty years ago it was a big deal, because there just wasn’t the acceptance that now exists.

The front of the memorial service program for Tom Dudley. From the collection of Bill Wilson

There are times when the force of personality is so great that the memorial service reflects the person who died. A case in point was my friend, Jon “Zoom” Szumigala. He had a profound effect on my life. He believed in me at a time when I was having a hard time believing in myself. He was an outgoing, gregarious person who had the same profound effect on many people. There were no lapses or lack of speakers during his memorial service. I had gone to the service thinking that I was going to have a hard time getting through it. I had decided that I was just going to sit at the back of the church. One of the ushers came up to me and said that there was room at the front of the church. I explained that Fernando and I were going to sit in the back. A few minutes later a second usher came up to me and said that I should sit up front. I again explained that I wanted to sit in the back. Finally a third usher came up to me and said, “Well, if you aren’t going to sit up front you should just go up and look at the second row.”

So I did and discovered that there were hatboxes on each seat in the second row. One of them had my name on it. I opened it up and discovered this black hat with a maroon flower on the side. I remembered he had told us that he had gone to a memorial service for a friend of his who lived in New York City and had been impressed that in the row behind the family, people had sat with these big black veiled hats. He had mentioned several times he wanted “professional mourners” at his memorial service. I just didn’t realize that he had gone shopping and bought hats for each person he wanted to sit behind his family.

My friend, Jon Szumigala, in his last Halloween costume. He designed and sewed the outfit as he was losing sight to CMV retinitis. Photo: Bill Wilson Collection

Knowing that he was still taking care of me got me through that service. However, his memorial service will probably go down the annals of MCC DC history for something that happened while people were asked to share their memories of Zoom. Zoom was an incredibly creative person – whether it was with food as a professional chef, or with thread and needle as a costumer. A person whose name I’ve forgotten but will call Joe, got up and stated that Zoom had designed a costume for Joe’s act. (He had been a go-go dancer at a local gay bar.) Joe started to describe the costume one would design for a person who performed in no clothes. As he did he unbuckled his belt, undid his zipper, pulled down his pants and showed everyone his jockstrap that had a rooster head for the cup. His cock had a cock on it. The poor minister nearly had a heart attack. Once again I was amazed that Zoom was still calling the shots. He would have approved of the speaker’s actions. He would have loved the shocked reaction of his family.

After Zoom’s memorial service a friend insisted that we go back to Zoom’s house. I was very reluctant because I thought it was a time for the family to be alone, but the person said that we needed to be there to support Jeff who Zoom had appointed as the executor of his estate. I have to admit I was glad I went. I was shocked at the behavior of his brother in particular. There was no reminisces or stories of good times with Zoom, the conservation centered solely on how could Zoom gone through the $70,000 insurance payment he had gotten when he cashed in his insurance. I had to bit my lip to keep from saying, “He had great incentive to spend it all it was clear he didn’t want any of you to get it!”

I had to wonder if Zoom had been adopted since the rest of the family showed no evidence of the caring, loving generous spirit that Zoom had possessed in such abundance. The gay community spent so much time forging the ties that make family because we couldn’t rely on the biological ties.

We were united against Aids in ways that we aren’t today. There weren’t 20 different groups to choose from each doing their own special thing. There was one or two groups relying on volunteers trying to do everything. We were doing our best to survive. Those of us still around need to tell our stories so that our younger generation can know what it was like.

I think my friends, Jimmy and John deliberately chose this sign to pose in front of when leaving Union Station. Since they both had Aids they were aware they would be making their final departure sooner than later. Photo collection of Bill Wilson

See Related On Scene with Bill Wilson Archive

Sentinel Photojournalist
Bill Wilson is a San Francisco-based veteran photojournalist. Bill embraced photojournalism at the age of eight. In recent years, his photos capture historic record of the San Francisco LGBT community in the Bay Area Reporter (BAR), The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The San Francisco Examiner, SFist, SFAppeal. Bill has contributed to the Sentinel for the past seven years. Email Bill Wilson at wfwilson@sbcglobal.net.

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