FOREWORD, by Mike Anglin
Jean Nelson was the mother of Bill Nelson, a prominent Dallas gay activist of the 1980s. She was born in 1922 in San Augustine, Texas, and passed away on March 16, 2016, in her home in Houston, at the age of 93. Her life story is widely seen as a remarkable one.
Three years before her death, on September 15, 2013, Jean agreed to sit down with me for a rather 5-hour video interview. She said the idea of being recorded by cameras and sound equipment made her a little uncomfortable, but that, more than anything else in the world, she wanted this one chance to tell the story of her life, the life of her family, and especially the life of her beloved son Bill, who passed away as a young man in 1990 with no opportunity to tell the story of his own courageous life as a civil rights activist and community leader.
Jean had already donated to The Dallas Way all of the archives and artifacts pertaining to Bill's life, which she had gathered and saved over the years following his death in the hope that someday they could be preserved as part of Dallas history. The Dallas Way has passed that collection to the University of North Texas, where it has become an important part of UNT's collection of GLBT history in "The Portal to Texas History."
I met Jean Nelson in 1979, when she was living in the Nelson family home in north Dallas. I, too, felt immediately "adopted into the family," and it was an honor to be the one chosen, 34 years later, to sit down with her in her retirement home in Houston and, as she said, "go over it all, one last time."
In the tumultuous decade of the 1980s, Jean’s life seemed to be one of constant challenge and adversity on many fronts. She lost her husband of 26 years, who had been a career pilot and executive with Braniff Airlines, in an automobile accident on his way home from work, and then she became the main caregiver for his aging parents, both of whom also died during this period. Braniff went into bankruptcy, and she began to see a sharp reduction in her husband's pension income and a constant decline in her own life savings. Then she had a fateful discussion with her son.
The story Jean told me that day was, I feel, an especially important one. It was the story of a devoted mother who never once imagined her son might be gay, and then, when he finally shared that aspect of his life with her, learned to love him for exactly who he was, and to love his life partner Terry Tebedo as her own son, as well ... witnessing Bill’s rise to leadership of a community, fighting along side both of her sons, Bill and Terry, in their valiant personal battles against AIDS, and enduring the devastation of their ultimate loss. Hers was not always a happy story. Few honest human stories are. But it was the story of courage, steadfast love and ultimate redemption.
This is the story she told.
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Mike, you are interviewing a lady … a mother … a wife ... 91 years old. I’m not really supposed to be here, you know. But I’ve said yes to an interview because I think an awful lot of Mike Anglin, and I want to tell the story of my son. So here goes.
I’ve been a widow for 34 years. My son has been gone for 23 years now, so we’re going to try to reminisce about his life, as well as I can do … but who knows what I can do. Having had a stroke and being told that half of me was taken, means I only have half a brain, and it’s 91 years old at that … so who knows what we’re going to hear today. But let’s try.
I met my husband Bill at work. We both worked for Braniff Airways, which is no more, today, but it was a big airline back then. I was a ticket reservationist in a hotel in downtown Galveston ... I believe the hotel’s name was the Jean Lafitte Hotel, and it is still there – across the street from a very famous catholic church. Bill worked at the airport. I worked downtown. Bill was one of the guys we always called because he knew everything. So I guess our romance started at work.
We married in Center, Texas, which was my home town … Shelby County, right on the border with Louisiana. Bill was from Dallas, the only child of a Baptist minister. Being a Methodist, it was quite a union there, but I lead him astray, because he became a Methodist when our two children joined the Methodist Church. It surprised me that he, too, decided that that’s what he wanted to be. So, yes, he became a Methodist.
Our son Bill was born in Galveston, and we moved to Dallas when he was about six weeks old. A couple of years later, about six weeks after Sheila was born, we moved to Florida and lived there for about four years.
When we returned to Dallas from Florida, we chose a home in the Bluffview neighborhood for, first of all, being close to work for Bill (as a Braniff pilot flying out of Love Field), and also for the school system. Both of our children went to Sudie L. Williams Elementary, where I taught … which made it really rough on them. I started teaching first grade, but I was not a good first grade teacher because I should have been teaching the higher grades – fifth, sixth and seventh grades. The superintendent at that time, Nolan Estes, believed that you needed to be professional and take any assignment given. That was back when they gave assignments on the Sunday before the start of the school year. We had to find out where we were assigned in the Sunday newspaper.
I was assigned to Oak Cliff, to which I readily resigned. I thought I was doing them a favor, so I went down Monday morning and said, “No, I can’t take it, I have two babies, and I won’t be traveling that far from home.” So I was, at that time, labeled an “unprofessional teacher.” But I ended up teaching first grade at Sudie L. Williams, because my husband Bill’s high school friend was the principal there, and he decided he needed a teacher by the name of Jean Nelson. So I said, “Well, I’ll teach anything you have to offer.” Not being really qualified, I probably was not a very good first grade teacher, but that was years ago.
We lived in Bluffview for seven years and then moved to north Dallas on Cromwell Drive. Bill entered junior high school at Marsh Junior High (and his class was the first class to enter that new school), and then later W.T. White High School (and his class was the first to enter that school as well). So Bill graduated from W. T. White, came back and did his student teaching at W. T. White while he was in college, and ended up being a teacher there for ten years.
So I continued teaching at Sudie L. Williams for a number of years. I taught every year except second grade. My favorite grade to teach was third grade, because they still love their teacher at that age. Sixth grade was my hardest.
Bill could always surprise us. It was while he was in junior high that he got the leading role in H.M.S. Pinafore. It was very much a surprise to us. We were sitting in the audience not knowing that our son could even sing, and he comes out on stage with the leading role. And he was unbelievably wonderful. He was very good. And later he played in the lead role of another musical, a completely very different role; I can’t remember the name of the musical. But, when he heard that … that they had taped the performance … when he heard himself sing, that was the end of his singing. He thought he was horrible, and he never did sing again. Of course, as a teacher at W. T. White High School, he was always in charge of their large musical productions.
In high school, it seemed Bill was involved in every activity available. He was very busy. Bill had many friends, and he and his sister Sheila, although two years apart, became very close in high school. For example, at the neighborhood public swimming pool, Bill was life guard and Sheila ran the concession stand. Or when Sheila would spend the evening baby sitting at a neighbor’s home, Bill would go over and help her with that. So they were very close.
Bill had tried the piano … both he and Sheila wanted a piano. I was working so I told my husband that maybe we should rent a piano for a while just to see if they had talent. So we rented a piano and they both practiced beautifully until the rental period was over and we went ahead and bought the piano, and at that point Bill’s practicing stopped. Sheila had a little bit more talent than Bill did on the piano, because she took a course later when she was older. But really I did not get either of them to become pianists. My mother was the talented one. She played the organ at the church, so I thought maybe we’d have a chance there, but it didn’t come out.
In high school he played either basketball or volleyball, I can’t remember which, but he was not that good. His dad wanted him to be good, so he did work at it, and he tried hard, but he was not good at it. My husband later became a golfer, after the kids were grown, but in the earlier years being a golfer was not financially available for us.
Academically, though, Bill was always way ahead of others. Even as far back as the first grade, his teacher thought that I was teaching him the tests they would have to take because he did so well on everything. In fact, it was all perfect so she dismissed it thinking that “of course he would do that well with his mother teaching him the test.” But, in fact, I had never even seen the test. I didn’t even know what she was talking about. But, yes, Bill excelled at every level of school, starting with first grade, and I think language arts was his favorite area.
When Bill and Sheila were old enough, the family began taking some amazing trips using Braniff passes. The first was a trip to England and Amsterdam. My husband was working in Amsterdam and so I decided to take young Bill and Sheila over there so we could visit him and see Amsterdam. On our way, we got to New York, but we were standby passengers, so we had to wait for a later flight. When we finally made it to Amsterdam, my husband, being the avid traveler he was, had us scheduled for a sight-seeing trip on the canals. We had not slept all night. We were on this boat on the canals, and our eyes were so heavy we could hardly keep them open. But it turned out to be a great trip because our two young teenagers were, again, an oddity. Bill had gotten a new hair style, with fins on each side. They both wore bobbysocks, and that was something Europeans had never seen. Amsterdam was the first experience of our children going to Europe.
It was when Bill was in junior high school that his desire to be of help to others really started. The reason I say that is because I found this paper he wrote called “A Blueprint for Happiness.” Bill found this empty lot in east Dallas and suggested to his Methodist Youth Fellowship group at Lovers Lane Methodist Church that they should take a trip over to this part of town and see what they could do to help this one area that was very depressed … not only financially, but educationally, academically. It was a very poor area. It happened to be an empty lot and he asked permission to have his MYF group go over and clean up this lot. Bill met a man living in that neighborhood who got so excited about the project that he brought all of his neighborhood friends over to help. So this is what Bill called “a blueprint for happiness.” They turned it into a miniature golf course. They sunk cans down into the ground to serve as holes for the golf balls. It became a really great playground for the local disadvantaged area. So in this write-up of this endeavor, I think Bill wrote down for the first time his philosophy of life. I’ll read it:
“We all know that it makes us happier and richer to do something to help others. This is the truth. We found out Saturday. Come out with us – sign up for a summer of great fun, and great service.”
So from junior high onward, he held to that philosophy: helping others makes us happy.
By the time Bill entered high school, he had become a leader in the Methodist Youth Fellowship group, and was a leader there for a number of years. He was very active and involved in everything, but I can’t really say what he religious beliefs were. We always went to church, but Bill and Sheila were never made to go to church but always wanted to attend. My husband was actually a bible scholar but never cared to share what he knew with others, so he and I never took on any leadership roles in the church. I remember that some Sundays, on the way home, I’d tell my husband, “Oh, that Tom Shipp, he really hit me today; what about you?” And Bill would always shake his head and say, “He didn’t touch me a bit.” But he had been raised as a Baptist and had always been made to go to church, so maybe he didn’t enjoy attending as much as others. The freedom to chose, which we gave our children, was very much different than what he was used to growing up.
So in 1967 Bill went to Tom Shipp, the minister of Lovers Lane Methodist Church (who had a practice of going to all the Dallas high schools and speaking and was a very well known minister in Dallas) and Bill told the him, “I want to plan a trip to the World’s Fair for our youth class.” Well, the minister said, “No way.” He apparently felt it was just too much of a responsibility for a church of that size to handle, with member families coming from all over the City of Dallas.
But Bill did not give up. He asked, “If I plan the trip, and if I get us places to stay, can we try?” So, he and his dad immediately began planning a group trip to Montreal, Canada, for those teenagers and six chaperones, including me, my husband Bill, and the youth minister from the church.
After the group of teenagers who would be going on the trip was set, they decided they would have garage sales … not to raise money for themselves but to pay the costs that would be incurred by the 6 chaperones. They each had to raise money on their own to cover their own expenses on the trip, including their share of the cost of the bus.
After Bill and his dad decided which route we should take on the bus, Bill wrote to various Methodist churches in the cities along the way and asked if the group might be allowed to spend the night in those local churches as they traveled toward Montreal. The city I think we all will remember the most was Detroit, because that was when they were having those horrible riots of 1967. We slept in the Methodist church in downtown Detroit, and we heard gunfire that night. It was frightening, but yet it was also very interesting for these teenagers to have the experience, not only to hear it, but the next day we drove through the city and saw it. It had a major impact on those young people.
When we finally reached Montreal, we all stayed in a Catholic dormitory of a private school, which was unbelievably wonderful. We had real beds to sleep on there! Up until that time, we had been sleeping in sleeping bags.
Once we arrived at the World’s Fair, we chaperones decided that if these young people were old enough to travel to the World’s Fair, they were old enough to see it on their own. Each day we would give them instructions that there would be one place at the fair where they could find one chaperone, and that otherwise they were on their own to do their thing. And that turned out to be very successful due to the fact that, hopefully, the teenagers grew a lot that year … going on the trip, being on their own. It would certainly be one they would always remember. And Bill had instigated it, and had done most of the advance planning. Greyhound Bus Lines gave us a very young driver for our bus, and he was wonderful but he really didn’t know much. So Bill and his dad pretty much supervised the day-to-day progress along the way.
So, it turned out to be a wonderful trip; we got home safely. An unforgettable trip.
Another great trip was our journey to Asia. The Key Club at school had adopted a child in Hong Kong, and my husband was able to get in touch with the Red Cross in Hong Kong, and they made arrangements for us to be able to go up into the refugee area of the city, up on a mountain outside Hong Kong … and that allowed us to go see that child Bill’s Key Club had adopted. What an experience that was. The mother had lost one leg in the war and was very crippled. They lived in unbelievable filth. She had a baby, a little girl … I don’t remember how many other children, I just remember a little girl the Key Club had adopted. She was about five years old, and she was unbelievably beautiful. So as we were ending our meeting with that family, my son Bill asked the little girl what she would like to have, and the only thing she said was that she would love to have a doll. So we bought a doll right there in Hong Kong and sent it to her. We’ll never know if she got it because we were never able to communicate with the family later on. We had also asked the mother what she would like to have, and all she asked for was fabric. So for many years we sent fabric to her in Hong Kong, but there was never any way for us to know if she actually received it. It was an experience that touched all of us tremendously. And Bill, of course, being a Key Club member, brought it all back to W. T. White and shared the experience.
We also made a trip to Japan once. My husband believed that when we were in a foreign country we should live like the natives, so in Japan we stayed on Japanese hotels and slept on the floors. Bill was very impressed, evidently, because when we got back home he decided to be Japanese, himself. So all furniture was moved out of his room. For decoration, Bill and Sheila went to the store and bought the burlap to make this art piece. Bill drew the design. Sheila did the handwork. And this, in the beginning, was a scroll on the wall in his room, and that was the only thing that was in the room. All the furniture was moved out and he slept on the floor.
Then we traveled to Bangkok, Thailand. And what I remember most was going into a store to shop there. We were the only ones in the store for about the first five minutes, and then it became crowded because people came in to see these strange people who had two children, with bobbysocks, unusual hairdos, and were speaking a foreign language that they had never heard. So the store owners ended up serving us Cokes to get us to stay longer, and all these people came in droves just to listen to us. It was unbelievable to us that we were a real unusual treat for them. That was the experience there that I remember most.
For another one of our trips during that era, Bill and Sheila selected Australia as a place for the family to visit. It was during the Christmas holidays and Bill would soon reach the age where he could no longer fly on Braniff passes. So we visited Australia and New Zealand. Now we knew that Australia was supposed to be opposite of North America in its seasons, so we thought we would be going to the beaches … and enjoying a summer experience. But the weather changed, and we bought sweaters because the climate was much colder than it was supposed to be. We discovered that even though they spoke English in Australia, it was very hard to understand them because they spoke with a different accent. And when we went over to New Zealand, that became my husband’s favorite, and he said he though we should retire to New Zealand. I told him “Not really … this is too far away from home.” I did think New Zealand was beautiful. Australia was very much like the United States in many parts, however I guess the part that was distressing was they part where the aborigines live, and that was central Australia ... the “outback.”
When Bill graduated from high school, he entered SMU. There was no doubt in his mind that that was where he wanted to go. So we told him that, although as parents we were glad he would be so close, he couldn’t just come home to do laundry, or whatever … that he had to live independently on campus like his classmates there. But he did get to bring college friends home with him for Sunday lunch. Money was tight, so my husband told him that, having chosen a private school, he’d have to go to work in his junior year, because we couldn’t afford two kids in college at the same time, and SMU was way out of our budget. However, Bill spent all four years at SMU and got his masters degree in liberal arts at SMU, too. He also studied French in college and, in fact, got a scholarship to study French on the French island of Guadalupe for a summer.
During the spring semester of his junior year at SMU Bill studied at a public university in Paris. He lived with a lady in Paris, I would say in her 70s, named Mdme. Bergeret. She had never rented a room to a man before, but, for some reason, when Bill was introduced to her, she was so impressed she decided she’d give it a try and rent to a young man for the first time. The room she offered him was like a closet ... very, very small. That’s the only way to describe it … for those six months or so, he lived in a closet in Paris.
She did give him the run of the house and kitchen, though, and, in fact, they became very, very dear friends. Sheila and I went to visit him there one weekend. We didn’t fly on Braniff, but we used Braniff passes to get there and back. I would say Bill lived right in the center of the city, because all we had to do was to walk to the different places Bill wanted us to see. Places like Notre Dame cathedral, very near, all within walking distance.
Now while Bill was living in Paris, he took advantage of going to all the country auctions. At the time he was just buying keepsakes, but he ended up having enough to fill seven boxes of antique items … and Bill wanted us to try to take those boxes home with us as luggage when we departed for the U.S. Well, you don’t just bring seven boxes onto a plane. I think this was Air France, but to get the okay to bring it all back to the U.S., we had to keep talking to higher and higher management levels at the airport, until they apparently decided that we must really be important people and finally gave us the okay to bring it all aboard as our luggage. That’s back when the airlines were having strikes all the time, and thank goodness they didn’t have one when Sheila and I were leaving to come home with all those boxes. Even when we arrived in the U.S., it was hard to go through customs with all that boxed luggage. Fortunately, Bill being who he was, he had listed every item individually, including its cost, and the inventory was several pages … so we were certainly under the limits for customs and were allowed back in.
This was not my first time to be in Paris. It seems I have traveled all my life. We were very fortunate, and my husband was absolutely wonderful, even though he worked with the airlines every day – he was always ready to take the family on great trips. So Bill and I traveled around the world twice … once with our children. We’ve been very blessed. I have seen the world.
Bill came back from Paris, finished up his senior year at SMU, then began teaching as a temporary teacher at W. T. White, where he had done student teaching. It was at about that time that his dad told him that, with this first job, it was the end of living at home, so Bill found an apartment. I believe the street was Longview. It was very close to SMU. And after teaching there at W. T. White awhile they asked him to come onto the faculty as a permanent teacher. It was the summer after that when he re-entered SMU to begin work on his masters degree.
He taught at W. T. White for ten years. He started teaching Latin, because the regular Latin teacher had become very ill. That was a really difficult year for him. He would say, “My Latin was terrible, but I had a really smart student, and she taught me an awful lot.” So he finished that first year teaching Latin, and then he and two other teachers decided to write the curriculum for a new course of study they called “The American Experience.” It included history, English, and other classes, and the students got extra credit for taking that course. They started with 44 students the first year. It was a very popular course. He was very popular with the students. However, teaching in North Dallas became a very difficult experience.
In the mid-1970s, when Bill had decided to become a gay activist in Dallas, he decided to tell me he was gay. So he came, loaded with books for me to read about gays, and he sat down and said, “Mom, I’d like for you to make a promise. When I leave tonight, I’ll be the same person that arrived.”
And I said, “Bill, your mom’s not understanding even what you’re talking about. What are you talking about.”
And he said, “Okay, I’m talking about the fact that I’m going to announce to Dallas that I am gay, and I need to tell you first.”
Well, Mike, it was a surprise. I guess I never … Bill was too involved in high school, with girls, with boys, that it never occurred to me that Bill was gay. As a matter of fact, it was a shock to the point that I’m sure I started crying. And I cried for a long time, because I had really different ambitions for my son, whom I thought would be a wonderful father because he was so great with children and with his own age group. So I’m sure I cried a lot. I also started running as if . . . well I had to get away, so I ran to Katy, Texas, to be there with Sheila and her first husband. I shared with Sheila that I just couldn’t go back to Dallas. I just … anyway … I had a rough time. I was devastated because all of the ambitions I had for my son were gone, and I did not understand the gay lifestyle. However, thank goodness, as time went by, I changed, and I found that the gay lifestyle was the most wonderful lifestyle I had ever known. I thought I had one son, but I had many. Because when Bill announced this to me, that was back when you didn’t talk about gays. You didn’t … well, it was just not something that was discussed, especially in North Dallas.
This is what Bill really got upset with me about. When he was telling me he was gay, and I was crying, one of the things I said to him was, “Bill, I want you to stop teaching.” Well, to Bill that evidently meant, to him, that I was kicking him out, at least that’s what he said to a journalist in an interview in later years. Why he thought of it that way, I don’t know, but the reason I said it to Bill was that, knowing North Dallas, I thought that Bill would literally be crucified because he said that he was gay. That was not acceptable at that time. And here he was teaching in North Dallas, which was probably the worst part of Dallas to really understand the gay lifestyle. That was where, if a family had a gay child, they were kicked out ... they were told they could not live with their family. So maybe that’s why Bill thought that was going to happen to him.
It was interesting. One of the things Bill said to me after his father’s accident was that he was sorry he never got to share this with his dad that he was gay. So he never did share that with his dad.
I can’t remember the year that he was interviewed by the Dallas Morning News and a whole center section of the paper’s magazine was on Bill. I read it, cover to cover, and I was still in shock. After I came back to Dallas from Katy, my friends had nothing to say, which was even more difficult because we were always so close, but they became silent. So that was hard. I had no one to talk to. So it left me pretty much alone, and how I solved it I really don’t remember, except that I decided I needed to be part of my son’s life. So I started going to where Bill and Terry lived and worked.
Terry Tebedo was a friend who Bill met in Houston. He’s the only one that I was ever aware of that was Bill’s boyfriend. Bill told me later that they had met in Houston and he convinced Terry to move to Dallas. I think I fell in love with Terry the first time I met him because of his beautiful blue eyes. They were famous. He was gorgeous. And he was a very, very nice, wonderful young man.
So Bill said to me, “Mom, I want him to be part of our family.” And I asked him how do I do that. And he said, “Invite him to dinner.” And I said, “I can do that.” So that’s how we started.
Terry and I became very close, mainly, I guess, when he became ill. It was not called AIDS at first … Terry was operated on for different things, but it was never said that Terry had AIDS until he became very ill.
Terry was the type guy who could win over anyone. The Nelsons thought he was the most wonderful young man they had ever met. Mrs. Nelson (my mother-in-law) even took him to church with her, to committee meetings … he went over to the Nelsons to help them with all sorts of repairs. These were Bill’s grandparents, and they sort of adopted him also, although they saw him as just a friend of Bill’s. Mr. Nelson had retired by that time from the ministry at Park Cities Baptist.
After ten years, W. T. White High School integrated and many families were moving further north, and so their enrollment fell, and they had to start letting teachers go. So Bill was called into the principal’s office one day and confronted with a photograph in some kind of local gay magazine clearly showing Bill participating in a gay pride rally near Turtle Creek in central Dallas. Some student at the school had been looking at the magazine and recognized Mr. Nelson, and he decided to turn it in to the principal. The principal was quite upset and demanded that Bill renounce it and confirm that he was not at the rally, and that the photo was not of Bill, but Bill refused. So the principal generated a letter of censure against Bill and put it in Bill’s official file. Bill demanded that the letter be removed. So it all became a very big deal, to the point that the classroom teachers took Bill’s side in the debate, asserting the rights of teachers. To be clear, I was not aware of any of this at the time it was happening. I found out later on.
So Bill prevailed and the principal was forced to remove the disciplinary letter after all. During that summer, Bill was let go as W. T. White reduced its teaching staff, and he applied to teach in Richardson. Richardson gave him a contract, and Bill left town on vacation toward the end of the summer … only to come back to Dallas and to be told that they wouldn’t be needing him. And they didn’t give him any good reason. Bill wanted to hire a lawyer and fight the case all over again, but I advised him that we didn’t have enough money for a lawyer and that we should try to find something else for him to do. He was asking “What in the world will I do in the business world,” and I just told him that he’d think of something.
At the time, Bill and Terry were living in two different houses. Terry’s home was on 5616 Belmont, a very lovely home, fully furnished with all the furniture inventory they wanted to re-sell. They had been buying things from garage sales. So they started by turning Terry’s living room and dining room into retail space, and everything in those rooms was for sale. It was a huge success. They called their first business “Only On Weekends” and then changed it to “Another Man’s Treasure.”
They then decided to open a new store in the back of what became Crossroads Market, at the corner of Cedar Springs and Throckmorton. This store they called “One Man’s Junk.” Two other men ran the main store and just rented the back area to Bill and Terry to sell their junk. Before long, Bill and Terry had the whole space under lease. They went to England and bought art deco furniture and shipped it to Dallas in large crates. That was the inventory for their store.
It also turned into a political center for the gay community, where so much of the politics was discussed. They eventually started a food pantry to help feed AIDS patients without food. They discovered a friend with AIDS who had nothing to eat, and it was Thanksgiving. Bill and Terry were both due to have Thanksgiving lunch at my house, and Bill called and said, “We’re going to be a little later … there’s something we have to do.” And they took Thanksgiving dinner to this friend of theirs. From that day on, they placed a sign in the Crossroads Market window saying they were accepting foot for people who needed it. So many people started contributing food that they had to rent additional space for it, and that was the first official food pantry, which is still in existence today and run by volunteers.
That’s when I became involved with the gay community. I really wanted to work at the food pantry. I learned to love the whole community as I worked at the food pantry. I did “sacking” of groceries. They were allowed to choose what they wanted. At first it was just canned goods, but then the local food markets started giving the pantry day-old produce so the customers could have fresh food. Refrigerators were donated and purchased and the operation expanded over the years as AIDS spread so rapidly.
That’s also how I met William Waybourn and Craig Spalding. Craig rented space in the Crossroads Market as his workshop where he recorded sound tracks to old musicals. I don’t think he did it to sell anything at first; he just wanted to make the recordings. He might have started selling his soundtracks, too, at some point. That’s when he also started marketing some more expensive items, more expensive than what Bill and Terry were selling.
These were the years when Bill and Terry and I took some cruises together. The first trip was a trail trip. They never did say that, but I knew it was. We went to Cancun just for the weekend. That was back when Cancun was really brand new; there were only about three or four hotels on the beach. But it turned out to be a really fun trip, and I think that’s when Terry really got to know me, to the point that I was his mom as well. We had lots of fun that weekend.
I created a problem at one point when Bill decided that he wanted to do a little snorkeling, and we rented this very small boat to take us over to where they did that. Being what I thought was a great swimmer, I started thinking that I might enjoy some surface swimming at the same time. So, when Bill jumped in to do his snorkeling, I stayed on the board for a while, but then I decided, “No, I’m not going to snorkel, but I’m going to swim,” not knowing that we were in I don’t know how deep of water. We were very close to the shore, and I thought it had to be shallow. I found out I was wrong. I jumped into the water and came up, realizing that I could not swim. The waves were extremely high, and I ended up on the coral reef. I swam over to it and sat down on it. And that’s when Bill saw me and realized that his mom was in no place that she should be, and he came to rescue me.
Needless to say, we both got very cut up on the reef, while he was trying to talk me into remembering the fact that I could swim, that I was a good swimmer, and I was going to swim back to the boat. And we did make it back to the boat where Terry was sunning. Terry was not a swimmer; at least he did not venture out into the water like Bill did and like I did.
Well, salt water is very good for cuts, so we were not hurt too much after we got back to the boat.
Other than that, the trip went very well, and we had lots of fun. So that started our cruises … that first one to Cancun.
On the second trip, we went to the Mediterranean. It was Bill, Terry, Linda Mitchell and I on that trip. We sailed down the east coast of Italy on that first trip to the Mediterranean, which, to me, was our best trip … because of all those islands. Bill and Terry both enjoyed lots of shopping.
The third trip … there were nine of us on that cruise … it included William Waybourn, Craig Spalding, John Thomas, Linda Mitchell and a couple who were friends of Linda. At first we were just eight, but a young man from New Jersey saw us and came over and asked it he could join us, so we became a traveling group of nine. On this cruise, we started out on the west coast of Italy, and next we visited two dangerous ports in northern Africa. Before we got off the ship in North Africa, we were told that there was lots of turmoil in the area, and that if we went ashore, we were doing so at our own risk. Finally we ended up in Cannes, France, which was exciting to me because that’s where my husband Bill had been one time when representing Braniff in an international meeting there.
John Thomas decided that he was going to play the part of a policeman in charge of our group, and it was wonderful in that we all went through customs quickly, because the other officials didn’t question him when he assured them that we were all okay. He also taught us a new song that we all sang, and the name of the song was the name of our ship, the Aushere.
When we dined on the ship, we had a large table for nine, and the waiter wanted to know who all these young men were, and I told him that they were all my sons. So the waiter decided that every night I would get two desserts, because if I had that many sons, I needed two desserts. It was a very fun cruise … one I will always remember.
After ending the cruise in Cannes, we rented a car and ended up in Paris. So we got to see an awful lot of beautiful France.
And then the last cruise, Linda Mitchell, Bill and I went to the Black Sea. We did this trip because Terry had always wanted to go on a trip to the Black Sea. Terry had planned the trip but had died before we were all able to go on it. So Bill had Terry’s planning notes, and those notes were what we followed on that trip to the Black Sea. At that time, Bill was, himself, very ill on the trip. It was very frightening to be traveling with Bill at that time, but he was determined to make the trip for Terry. So Linda and I took care of him on the trip, and it was our last one.
The day came when I was told that Terry had been hospitalized, so I went to the hospital to see him. It was like a community meeting. There were so many friends there. And I thought, “They’re not going to let Terry stay in the hospital … he’s got too many friends coming to see him.” But he had been diagnosed with a spleen problem, and it had to be removed. And then later he was officially diagnosed with AIDS, and that’s when I started going to the hospital every day. I stayed with him in the day time and Linda Mitchell stayed with him at night. I had to be his chief caregiver because he really had no family. I was his mom in every way I could be. We talked a lot, but not about Terry’s life. Terry never talked about his family. He had lead Bill to believe that his family had disowned him. But he did not talk, at all, about his family, to me. We talked about the store, about the fun times we had had.
After Terry’s death in 1988, and after a short passage of a time, it became clear that Bill, too, was ill. One day William Waybourn called me and informed me that they had found Bill unconscious in his home and that I truly needed to move in with him, because he needed help but would never ask. And I said, “No question; I can move tomorrow.”
Well, I had my dog, Holly, which Bill and Terry had given me as a wonderful Christmas present several years earlier ... a little bundle of fur … after I had told them for three years that I didn’t need a dog. But it was thought by the medical world at that time that animals could not be around AIDS patients, and Bill and Terry had already given their dogs to a lady who agreed to care of them. So Holly couldn’t move with me, but I asked a neighbor to take that responsibility, and she said of course.
So I moved into the house on Bonita with Bill. At that time, I truly didn’t know he was as ill as he was. Bill was seeing Dr. Fine back then, and we were in his office one day, for a check-up, and he looked at Bill and me and said, “Bill, you have two more weeks to live.” And then he looked at me and said, “Mrs. Nelson, you need to put Bill into hospice and get on with your life.” Well, that really … wow... set me on fire. So we left his office, and I turned to Bill and told him we were not doing anything like that, and he said, “I know.”
Hospice care in Dallas, at that time, was just a room in a hospital. It was nothing like it is today. The one thing Bill had asked me was, “Mom, don’t ever put me in a hospital. If you want to live with me, fine, but I don’t want to go to a hospital.” I said okay.
And that’s when Penny Pickle became our guardian angel. And she was a guardian angel. She was the most loving, caring person I’ve ever known, and she taught me everything I needed to know to take care of Bill. I even gave hypodermics. I knew how to do that because I had done that to my mom, who was a diabetic. So I had already learned how to do that, and it was no problem. But Penny came so often, almost daily, to check on us … to check on Bill, but she included me in all her directions. Like I say, with our guardian angel, it worked.
Bill went through some stages that were unbelievable. First of all, he loved his yard and he had not been able to fix it the way he wanted it. So I fixed it and planted it the way he wanted. The only thing we didn’t get around to doing was to plant oak trees all over the neighborhood. We planted some in his front yard, which didn’t live, but his idea was planting trees.
His next idea was that, since he had friends that needed food, he needed to learn to cook. He had never cooked before, because Terry did all their cooking. So he had no conception of how to cook. But he was too weak to stand up, so I got him a kitchen stool he could use. He decided he wanted to bake bread. Well, I had never baked bread. I wasn’t a cook, either, but we learned to bake bread together.
Then he decided we should have happy hour at the AIDS clinic where everyone came regularly to get their shots. Bill wanted it to be a happy time, so we had to make it a happy hour. So we decided to learn how to make cakes for the happy hour. Well all I knew about making cakes was to open a box. But that was okay. It was fun. Then we decided that we should be more helpful for the patients and take carrots and vegetables for snacks at happy hour. We went through so many stages, but it remained a happy time, to the point that I think the ones who were getting shots looked forward to the day they were scheduled to come in and get one. I hope that’s how they felt.
Bill’s brain was just going 90 miles an hour trying to make the most of the time he had left because Dr. Fine had said he only had two weeks. But we soon got a new doctor, and he set Bill up with the fluid nutrition process that I learned to set up every night for him to have, and he gained a lot of weight, and went back to work … we almost had hopes that we had gotten to the point he was going to live forever. But then … that didn’t last.
Dr. Green, I believe I remember the name correctly, became Bill’s doctor, and he was like Penny Pickle … he was unbelievably wonderful … to Bill, and to me.
During that time I was driving a lot and one night I said, “Bill, do these car lights have Christmas wreaths around them.” He asked me what I meant and I said, “Well, all the cars we’re passing have Christmas lights around the headlights.” I had cataracts, big time. I didn’t’ know it, and here I was taking care of Bill. So he asked Dr. Green, “Could you put me in the hospital for four days?” And Dr. Green said, “Sure.” And I said, “Bill you don’t like hospitals. You don’t want to go there.” And he said, “I need to go because you are going to have an operation.” When I said no way, I didn’t need an operation, he said, “Mom, the car lights don’t have Christmas lights around them.”
So I went in and had the operation, and, at about that time, I asked Bill if he would move to my home in North Dallas for a while. That was a mistake because he was very uncomfortable there, but he did stay there temporarily while I recovered from my eye operation because we had to have a sitter to help us during that phase, and his home was just not big enough for all three of us. So he did move to my house on Cromwell for a week or so, but first he stayed in the hospital for four days so I could have my operation. Once I was back to normal, we both moved back to his house on Bonita and continued to live there until he died.
Otherwise, living with Bill, with AIDS, was frightening. The tree right in front of his house, because of a series of storms, fell in the middle of the night. Immediately, Bill was so well known in his neighborhood, his friends came by and said “Jean, this is one worry you don’t need to have. We’ll take care of this tree.” And the tree disappeared.
Something else that happened at that time. He was being fed by this pump, we had a storm, the electricity went off, I was scared to death, didn’t know what to do, called the City and they informed me that if I had an invalid, as I was describing, that I should also have a generator … why didn’t I have a generator? … well I didn’t even know what a generator was. I just continued to be the generator, myself, and I manually pumped it until the electricity came back on.
At about this time, there was a group at Lovers Lane Methodist that was called “Breaking the Silence,” composed of parents of gay children, and Bill and I got involved with them. It was their belief that the Methodist church should admit that gays were human beings and should be allowed, not only as members of the church (which they already were), but that they should also be allowed to be ministers. We knew several ministers who were gay, I did, who were in the Methodist church – and they had had to leave. So our organization “broke the silence” by walking in the gay pride parade. We walked the first time. We walked the second time, the following year. In the third year, we rode in a truck, all of us wearing our pennants around our necks saying “My Child is Of Sacred Worth.” That was the year that Bill was named Grand Marshall of the Dallas Gay Pride Parade. I now regret not riding with him that day. He asked me if I would ride with him, and I told him I wouldn’t … that “all of this is to be for you. You’re the special person.” That was so stupid on my part, because I should have been right beside him ... but I wasn’t.
We arrive at Turtle Creek Park where he gave his final speech to the huge crowd collected there. I’ll never, ever forget it. I thought he was truly loosing it when he kept saying: “Never, never, never, never do you give up when you have AIDS.” That became the headlines in the paper the next morning: “Never, Never, Never.” He gave a wonderful speech. We got home. He was completely exhausted. That’s when I knew he was extremely, extremely ill.
The night Bill passed away, I didn’t know it because Penny did not let me know it immediately. I was exhausted, because we had checked Bill in to the hospital. I had asked them at the main desk, if they would be extremely sensitive that Bill was in his room by himself because I needed to run home to Cromwell. While I was gone, Bill had … a convulsion, and when I got back to the hospital I could see that Bill really should have stayed there, but Bill was determined to go home. Well, the nurses got extremely upset with me when I told them that I was going to take my son home, and they told me that Bill could not go home in that condition, and I said, “Yes, we will go, because I think he is very close to dying and he wants to do it in his own home, so that’s where we’re going.” They said it was against their policies and that they would not take him away from the hospital, so I had to call my own ambulance to bring Bill back home. And Bill and I left the hospital under their protest.
When we got to his house, Penny was there. They had music from Phantom of the Opera blaring. But I don’t think Bill realized it because he was too far gone, and he died later that night. I was exhausted and asked to go upstairs to the bedroom and take a nap, and Shannon Cox, a good friend, came and spent the night downstairs with Bill. So Shannon was the last one to be with Bill as he passed away in the early morning hours of February 20, 1990.
Dr. Green and Penny arrived at the house early that morning before they woke me up, and Penny came up to my bedroom and said … “Jean, you need to go down and tell Bill whatever you’d like to tell him – he doesn’t have much longer.” Well, he was already gone. Penny made that up. But I did … I talked to Bill just like he was still with me. And I kissed him and told him I was going to miss him. That was it.
I walked back out into the living room and Penny advised me to call some family member to help me, so I called my brother. And he was there the next day.
I left the funeral service entirely up to William, and I shouldn’t have. I should have had one like Terry’s, which was absolutely wonderful. Bill’s service became too much of a political voicing of all the complaints that … I don’t really know … but I know that I was called back to the church because there were hate letters written to Lovers Lane Methodist because of something that happened at the funeral service. And what had happened at his funeral was this … I had asked what type of music was allowed, and they had told me what kinds were allowed, which was so stupid, because all Bill wanted was the Phantom of the Opera music, we thought. So John Thomas knew that, and in his talk at the service he not only mentioned the fact but he started singing music from Phantom of the Opera. Well, the organist got up and slammed the keyboard cover down, and left. The audience did not know this, the people that were there, but someone must have relayed publically what had happened, because that was why, I think, all the hate messages came back to the church ... about the organist leaving during the middle of Bill Nelson’s memorial service. That’s what I think; I never was sure. So I regret it … not helping … but I was in a mental and physical stage that it was impossible for me to do at that moment.
Anyway, his memorial was definitely a disappointment for me. I did not want him being remembered that way. It had upset the organist because she had told Tim Selig, the director of the Turtle Creek Chorale, what kind of music he, as a soloist, would be allowed to sing, and it wasn’t Bill’s kind of music. It was so far away from Bill’s kind of music, and John Thomas couldn’t stand it … nor could I, but I was just sitting there listening.
So, the next day, I went to the church and I agreed with them that the service was more political than it should have been, but I never did like that minister after that. Even though I thought his memorial was not what it should have been, in a lot of ways, yet it made the ones who were part of the service, I’m sure, feel good. I can’t remember who they were. I can’t find the program.
In the following days I moved back home. All of my clothes were in the Bonita house, so I moved back home. When Dr. Fine told Bill he had two weeks to live, although we didn’t believe him, he had mentioned hospice care … so after that, I decided to take a hospice course and find out what hospice really was, and why it wasn’t in Dallas the way it turned out to be in Houston. It was a six-week course. I learned a lot, and met a lot of wonderful people. And that’s also when Sheila and I were making the AIDS quilt for Bill.
When I turned 70, for the first time in my life I felt extremely old ... too old to live any longer by myself. It was 1993 by then, and I thought, “Here I am living in Dallas; I’m 70; I’m a very old woman, mad at the world, definitely mad at God, and I need to move to near Sheila in Katy.”
So I called Sheila and told her that I needed to move, and at that time, not knowing that Sheila was having marital problems with her first husband. They had moved from Katy into a much, much larger home in Houston, which worked for them for a while. And I wanted a house near them, but not within walking or bicycle distance … not that I rode a bicycle at that time, but I didn’t want the grandchildren riding their bicycles to my house. So I bought the house in the Woodlands, and I lived in that house for 17 years.
It was a wonderful neighborhood, all those young people, and I loved it. What I learned was that I had been forever changed by those difficult years in Dallas. I decided to continue my study of hospice care in Houston, at the age of 70. I wanted to become a trained and certified hospice volunteer. So I enrolled in a 6-week course there. Our first assignment was to write a letter to a person we had lost. My first reaction was “NO WAY !!” But that night I was awakened with all the words I wanted to say to my son. I got up at 3 AM and started writing! The words were just flowing! I don't think I was ready to give God credit at this time, but it did seem strange. I had never been able to express my feelings, and now the words I wanted to say to Bill kept coming. It almost seemed that my son’s talents were being passed on to me.
When I finished that hospice course, I became certified, and a new career opened up before me. Hospice training was very thorough, teaching me how to accept death and giving me the desire to help others. I chose to go to homes to sit with a loved one who was dying, giving the caregiver ‘time out’ – to go to church, go out to lunch, the grocery store – whatever. My patients were mainly cancer patients; one had AIDS, one injured in a car accident. These visits helped me to feel good about myself – that I could still help others even though I was old. I continued my volunteering for several years. Tears were replaced with laughter from good memories. Love leaves behind more than death takes away.
Some years later, back in Dallas, the Nelson-Tebedo AIDS Clinic was to be relocated to a new and larger facility, and I was asked to return to Dallas to speak at the opening ceremony. I mustered the courage to return to Dallas and to stand up in front of so many who knew and loved my “two sons,” and here is what I said to them that afternoon: [reading]
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“My emotions have gone from one extreme to another. Happiness because of what I see here today. A wonderful place to seek and find knowledge – and hopefully a cure someday for this dreaded disease called AIDS. And extreme sadness because Bill and Terry are not here with me today for the official opening of the new Nelson-Tebedo Clinic named in their honor. Therefore, I think it should be my role today to thank you on behalf of Bill and Terry. Bill, of course, was here to have the thrill of seeing the huge banner across the [original] building "Nelson-Tebedo Clinic" – remarking at the time "But mom, I think most buildings are named for those who have gone on." Oh, how I wish he could see what a super place it is today! I, too, want to say thanks to all of you who have worked so hard to make this a success. Thanks to the staff I love and admire for their dedication. Karen Estes, who worked so hard to see that all construction work was done correctly. A very special thanks to Gloria & Dr. Green. With their guidance I'm sure the Nelson-Tebedo Clinic will rank tops in the nation.
What a thrill it is for the mother to see a clinic for the purpose of fighting AIDS name for her two sons. A very special memorial for two very special young men who spent so much of their life working for the cause of human rights, so that this will be a better place for everyone. … So thanks a million. Thanks for the love shown here today. This will be another one of my wonderful memories.”
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Several years later I was asked to speak at the second “World AIDS Day” worship service taking place at the John Wesley United Methodist Church in Houston on November 28, 2001. I’d like to read to you what I shared with that audience:
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Last year, when I read the announcement in the church paper that John Wesley would be observing World AIDS Day for the first time, I was not only filled with joy, but I knew I needed to share this joy with our minister, Don.
Without an appointment, I arrived at the church. … When my turn arrived to see Don, I walked into his office and said 'Don, I'd like to re-introduce myself.' To this he replied 'But Jean, I already know who you are. You are Jean Nelson.'
I replied, ‘I mean the real me. I'm Jean Nelson, the mom of a gay son who died of AIDS in 1990. I've come to thank you for the service to observe World AIDS Day.’
Now we are having our second service, and I have been asked to have a part in this program. What I would like to do tonight, God willing, is to introduce my son Bill to you.
Bill started out life as a very timid child, making first grade very difficult because he wanted all of his work to be perfect. He had great teachers through elementary, junior high and high school – receiving many achievement awards. During high school he was very active in the Methodist Youth Fellowship at Lovers Lane Methodist Church, where he had attended all his life. His leadership abilities really became very strong. For example, when the World's Fair was in Montreal, Canada, he went to our minister, Tom Shipp, asking permission to plan a trip [to Montreal] for the MYF. Tom was reluctant at first because of the huge responsibility but told Bill if he thought he could organize it he could give it a try. Bill started immediately -- with his dad's help -- planning the route the bus should take, writing Methodist churches along the route for permission to spend one night. The responses from the churches were great. The trip did happen. After months of preparation, 33 teenagers and six adults boarded a Greyhound bus.
After graduating from high school, Bill attended SMU for five years – going to France for one semester to study French. He graduated with a bachelor of arts and masters degree in Liberal Arts, English and French.
“He did his practice teaching at his own high school [W. T. White High School in Dallas, Texas], teaching French. After graduation he was hired as a permanent teacher at his high school. There, with two other teachers, he created a new course called "The American Experience" – a two-hour course that included a combination of English, history, art, music and architecture. His extra activities included coaching a wrestling team and teaching stagecraft. After three years he received the outstanding teacher award.
After 10 years of teaching – when he chose to announce to the world that he was gay – no teaching job was then available. At this time he and his partner, Terry Tebedo, started an antique/junk store on Cedar Springs called Crossroads Market. He also became very interested in human rights, ending up as president of the Dallas Gay Alliance and then the Texas Human Rights Foundation.
Since I moved to Houston, my daughter Sheila and I have made two panels for the AIDS quilt. One in memory of Bill’s life – the second in memory of Bill and Terry’s life and their fight for human rights. The quilt has become a powerful tool to bring awareness of AIDS.
Dallas – though extremely conservative – learned to love my son. After his death a 30-minute tribute to his life was shown on Channel 13.
I’m a much stronger person because of my son’s life. Never did I dream I could stand before you and talk. Tonight I’m here to continue carrying the torch for human rights and awareness of AIDS. I had a super guy for a son. Thank you for letting me introduce him to you.
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Well, Mike, several years later I suffered a stroke and became unable to continue living alone, so Sheila helped me move into this apartment at the Terrace assisted living center. And, Mike, you know what? Not long after I moved into this apartment, Sheila decided to have my 90th birthday, here at the Terrace, and I said, well, I don’t know enough of the old people here and they’ll get their feelings hurt, so we won’t invite anybody. So I had my 90th birthday, and to my surprise I had 51 friends attending it. And that, too, I feel, was a kind of accomplishment at my age … I thought, “to still have 51 friends.”
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The September 15, 2013, videotaped oral history interview of Jean Nelson was first transcribed into a 20-page, 11,000 word Q-and-A dialogue between me and Jean. To make her marvelous answers and comments more easily readable for the purposes of this document, I removed my questions and comments during the interview, and I have only included here Jean's words from that transcription. No changes have been made to her narrative, except for the insertion of word-for-word restatements of her two speeches at the end. She had both documents with her that day, but I told her I would include them in the story, and that she did not have to read them for the camera. She seemed relieved, because I think that reading her own words about her beloved son would have been, for her, a difficult emotional task. After I packed up all the recording gear, and was leaving her apartment that evening, Jean placed her hand on my arm and said, "Thank you, Mike. I am so happy we did this, and I think I will rest now."
That was the last time I ever saw that amazing lady.
- M. Anglin