A Tribute to Peter Richards

He was born Jerry Leon Richards, on January XX, 19XX. He came up out of Lyles, a hardscrabble hamlet in Hickman County, Tennessee. But forget all that. He chose to forget it, or at least to put it behind him, and so I do too, out of respect for his conviction of who he really was. Sui generis. One of a kind. Self-made. Ora birthed the child who would become the man. She delivered the baby, and then, in the fall of 1971, she delivered-up her boy to the campus of Martin College in Pulaski, Tennessee. From 1971 to 1973, her son remade himself within the cocoon of that campus. The old passed away so that he could be born anew as Peter Richards—and I watched as Pete emerged. We were classmates and more for those two years, and yes, it was that long and that hard of a birth. The second time around, Pete had to deliver himself into his own version of manhood.

How much more than classmates were we? I’m still trying to figure that out. We were both gay, but didn’t know it or couldn’t admit it, even to ourselves. We lived in the same dormitory, worked together in the college library as part of the Work-Study Program, and held long, private talks in the dorm late at night. But we never slept together. Never kissed. Never touched intimately. Except for the meeting of like minds.

I heard him clearly the minute he arrived on campus at the start of our freshman year. His voice was high. Soft. Nuanced. Smart. It was all there in his intonation. Pete didn’t see me. He was busy resisting his mother’s direction—rebelling. But doing so in that exasperated tone we save for those we love. Rebelling, as all youth must, against those closest to us, so that we can become who we are meant to be.

I sneaked a peek out my dorm window from behind the curtain. They stood at the rear of the car, trunk up, two mouths open, two sets of arms flailing. A few items already decorated the pavement of the parking lot. He was holding a box with clothes laid out across the top, but I could see him as clearly as I heard him. Not too tall. Very slender. Smooth, creamy skin. Flowing like liquid in his movements. A dark lock of hair half concealed one eye. I was intrigued from the start.

We didn’t meet until weeks later, when our work schedules brought us together in the library. Over the course of that first year—on shared shifts during slow periods at the library, or in his dorm room or mine—we often talked about the challenges of the day. We also shared our dreams of what we wanted from life. Of what we hoped was to come. Of who we were and who we wanted to be.

Even with our early acquaintance in the dorm and our joint work at the library, we migrated into different clicks. The drama club called to Pete. I avoided participation there, beyond that of an audience member, fearing association with that group. Shamefully, I was afraid of being linked by my other friends with such a seemingly gay troop of people. Yet, I inexplicably chose to be friends with Pete anyway. He had no fear of being who he was becoming. He was good in his acting roles, too. Very talented, and I told him so. I expected he’d pursue it as a career, but he didn’t. I think he finally decided he’d had enough drama in his life.

Back in that dorm, he was bullied when bullying wasn’t a popular thing for society to rail against. I guess those straight boys sensed his vulnerability. I was better at hiding my true self, and worse off for it. During that time, he endured verbal abuse. Threats of physical attack. Buckets of water thrown under the door to his room—a flood made so much worse by the giggles of drunken boys just having a little fun. The school eventually agreed to move him to another wing and floor where the testosterone flowed as less of a flood. Things slowly got better for Pete.

Decades later, after we’d reconnected, I asked him about those times. He didn’t remember the details the way I did. The human mind likes to forget the bad and remember the good in life, and that’s a wonderful thing. He’d forgotten how he used to set his clock so it would awaken him late, late in the night. He’d get his shower at a time that would leave him less likely to face a sneering band of boy-man-apes ready to mark the hall and the communal shower as their exclusive territory.

During the summer between his first and second year, Pete discovered the wonders of connecting with someone like-minded in spirit—and in body. It was there on campus during the summer that he unlocked the mystery of his love. He told me about it as soon I returned to school in the fall. I was inquisitive, asking many probing particulars. Inquiring with way too many questions for such a delicate subject. Too many except for someone really, really interested in the details. He answered frankly, responding without grilling me on why I wanted to know. We were friends and we’d always been able to talk honestly about our feelings. He knew how seriously I took my Baptist upbringing. Maybe he was relieved that I wasn’t passing judgment.

Pete and I maintained our friendship during that second year. I credit him with opening the window on my own sexuality, even though he was unaware of it. It would be decades before I reconciled myself to reality and found the courage to open the door to greater integrity, so as to pass through it myself. But the start of it was our friendship and the peek he gave me of the bigger world beyond Martin College and Tennessee. His honesty with himself and with me would stick in my mind and prod my conscience for years to come.

And then came our graduation. Junior college was over. We were moving on. I headed south and Pete went north for further education. We lost touch. Later, after we’d reconnected, I learned that he’d legally changed his name. He’d converted to the Jewish faith from his family’s Pentecostal Christian tradition. He’d gone on to Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, to become a Registered Nurse. He’d found his partner in life, as I had mine. They’d lived in Illinois and Iowa and Palm Springs. He never went back to Tennessee, other than for the rare visit with family. Eventually, he became a university professor in the medical field. Throughout, he nurtured to the sick and those in need.

He seemed to have been given little in money, or cultural geography, or even sexual orientation that would jump-start a life of success. He and I had all that in common. But he made something of himself. And then he gave back to society with a level of compassion not shown to him by many early in his life. The best I have to give back are these memories of him. And to him, I give my admiration, my praise, and my love.

“Time doesn’t take away from friendship, nor does separation,” according to Tennessee Williams. But the playwright also said, “Time is the longest distance between two places.” It was Pete who had the courage to contact me across that distance a few years ago, after finding me on Facebook. “In hopes,” he told me, of “accomplishin’ an endur(h)ing re-acquaintance.” He hadn’t retained that Southern accent; it was a joke at my expense, for I have stubbornly hung on to my twang. I must admit, I liked the gentle cajoling.

We had been out of touch for four decades. Those missing middle years matter little, as far as friendship goes—just as Tennessee Williams said. We’ve treasured the time we had together, starting with those formative, precious college days—the sunny salad days of our lives—and concluding with the diminishing days that are presently upon those of my generation—what I like to call the apple-pickin’ season. This is the season we make time to remember and be grateful for the twists and turns our lives have taken. We stand in the lengthening shadows, with ripened apple in hand. We feel the smooth texture and smell the shining skin, recalling the essence of the blossom it was just last spring. Then we take a bite and taste the sweetness that’s present within, finding again that joy we felt—way back when.

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