It’s a traffic jam when you’re already late
A no-smoking sign on your cigarette break
It’s like ten thousand spoons and all you need is a knife
It’s meeting the man of my dreams
And then meeting his beautiful wife
Lyrics from Ironic by Alanis Morissette
I will remember my late friend Johnny McGee for many reasons, not the least of which being that he is why I have lost my affection for irony. You see, I’ve always been rather enchanted with the concept of irony. It can be funny or dramatic but almost always clever. Irony used to amuse me, but not so much anymore. A few weeks ago, my friend Johnny, a man with the biggest heart I’ve ever known, died of a massive heart attack. Yes, a little too ironic.
Johnny and I met over 25 years ago when I moved to Greensboro from Washington, DC. with my then partner for a new job opportunity for her. Most of our friends thought we were crazy for deliberately moving to a state where gay basher extraordinaire Jesse Helms was a longtime senator. We were certain that we would be the only gays in the village so imagine our surprise when we found the Triad to be teeming with our tribe. I met Johnny – and his husband Bruce – at a meeting of the Triad Business and Professional Guild – a deliberately ambiguously named networking group for the LGBT community. Several Guild members were teachers or worked in law enforcement and were not out professionally for fear of losing their jobs. It was a different world in 1996 and the Guild was created to be a safe space for all.
Johnny and Bruce were gentle giants who stood out in a crowd so I’m sure they were one of the first couples that we met. This blog post is about Johnny, but it is hard for me to type his name without Bruce’s. They were together for 36 years and I seemed to almost always say their name as one word – Johnnyandbruce. When you met them, you immediately felt comfortable – they were both softspoken and kind. And I would soon learn that they were tremendous advocates for people living with HIV/AIDS in the Triad. They were founding members of Triad Health Project (THP), a local AIDS service organization that continues to this day. THP’s main office number was originally Johnny and Bruce’s home phone number – just process that. Client records were kept securely in a shoebox under their bed and Johnny and Bruce were often surrogate family for people who had been abandoned by their own.
I penned a letter to the editor in honor of Johnny following his death and posted it on my Facebook page to share with folks who might not have heard the sad news. I was overwhelmed by the volume and genuineness of the comments on the post – some from folks I had never met. People used words like legacy, generosity, and compassion. Some recalled Johnny’s wonderful hugs. My friend Susan Ladd, a former writer at the Greensboro News and Record, credited Johnny and Bruce for helping to educate her and the community on the humanity of those living and dying with AIDS. A woman who was a student when Johnny taught high school Spanish and served as a Young Life coordinator wrote that he was “exuberant, loving, always positive and non-judgmental – all the qualities needed to work with highschoolers.” She forgot patience. Johnny had a lot of that, too, but he did not suffer bullies – or bigots – gladly. He was never afraid to be the voice for the marginalized.
I find comfort in grieving with others and my aching heart was buoyed by so many folks sharing their thoughts about Johnny, one of the most humble men I have ever met. I spent over 25 years in non-profit development, and I learned early on that some people give for recognition – often the people with the most money – there’s my old friend irony again. Johnny McGee gave a lot in all manner of ways and never once did it for the acknowledgement – so it was fitting that I heard from Bruce later that evening. He messaged me and said, “Thanks for all the kind words in your letter to the editor. Johnny would be blushing all over.”
Johnny was that rare man who was comfortable in himself. He was a big man – well over six feet tall – who was never interested in what was trendy. He could make a cheesecake that could put that factory joint out of business. And he loved his final teaching post at Bennett College, one of only two all-women HBCU’s in the nation – especially marching with his Belles in all white on special days. He was gracious to a fault. One time my partner and I were hosting a cocktail party the night before a big THP fundraiser. When Johnny got his invitation, he called to see if I needed to borrow any of his chafing dishes – plural. I teased him for years that that was the gayest thing anyone had ever asked me. I told him that lesbians and open flames are a recipe for disaster and we laughed ourselves silly.
Maybe now you can understand why the idea of Johnny McGee succumbing to an attack by the very thing that defined him is just too much irony for me to bear.
I’ve thought a lot the past few weeks about how best to honor Johnny. I know he would appreciate memorial gifts to Triad Health Project, but more than that, I think Johnny would want us all to simply be more kind. So, I’m going with a new mantra, with no sacrilege intended – WWJD. What would Johnny do?
Easy answer – the right thing with a ton of heart.