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The trailblazer and his nephew

A mouthful of ashes and a Google search inspire a journalist’s quest for his great uncle.

Until about eight months ago,the first thing that came to my mind when I thought about my Great Uncle Richard was the way his ashes tasted.

Well, maybe not so much the taste as the texture. Kind of like eating chalk.

I was 9 years old, standing in a little cemetery nestled between fields in a part of rural Ohio where the world flattens out into a table of corn and soybeans stretching to the horizon; the same part of Ohio that much of my family has farmed and called home since they fled revolutionary Germany in the mid-1800s.

I had never met the deceased. I asked why and was told that he lived in Florida. I got the impression, even then, that he had some money and was the source of a framed picture that hung in my living room.

My imagination filled in the rest. I assumed he must be old, since he was my grandma’s brother and she was old. I’d been to a funeral for an old man before — my grandpa. He’d been a brittle figure lying in satin, skin covered in dark spots, hands cold to the touch.

That’s what I was picturing until a man in a suit, whom I wouldn’t meet again for more than 20 years, brought out an urn and started giving a speech.

I must have been a little bit curious about what was in the jar. Almost certainly, I must have been unaware of the prevailing winds. Because when the man opened up the urn and turned out its contents, I got a mouthful of my Great Uncle Richard.

It was just a taste, but it was enough to create something of a connection, a thread that I never really let go of. On that thread I’d hang thoughts of Richard from time to time, even after I stopped fearing I’d be haunted by his ghost. It was the kind of story that you tell over and over and that begs for more stories, that leads to more questions that you can either ask or always wonder about. This spring, by happenstance, I chose to ask, and I set out see if I couldn’t get to know the man my dad and his cousins affectionately called Uncle Dick.

A kindred soul

In the news business, they might accuse me of burying the lede. Uncle Dick was actually something of a historical figure.

More widely known as Richard Heyman, Uncle Dick was celebrated as the first openly gay mayor of a major city in America when he won the race for mayor of Key West, Fla., in 1983.

You’d have to know my family to know how improbable that distinction might seem.

It was something that I knew from the time I was a teenager, in the way you know any number of things your mom told you when you were a kid but you hadn’t given much thought to.

But last winter, over dinner with friends, someone suggested my fiancée and I join them on a trip to the Florida Keys for spring break

At that point, I only knew three things about the area: It was warm, Jimmy Buffett and Grandma’s brother had been mayor.

My old friend Paul was a bit incredulous when I volunteered my odd connection to the area.

Have you ever Googled him?

Thirty seconds later, four people were sitting around a table in a largely empty Lebanese restaurant,staring at their phones.

A stream of thoughts quickly followed:

He’s got an obit in the Times,someone said.

LA and New York, another added.

Not many people in this world get that kind of treatment when they die.

I read the articles as if they were some lost scroll in the family scripture, one of those where the teachings contradict all of those that have come before.

He was so young. He’d died at 59.

So much for my image of a stodgy old man.

A few paragraphs later I found the cause: Richard had died of AIDS.

That part had not made it into my family’s oral history — at least not the part I’d heard.

We all looked at each other when that detail surfaced. Richard had gone from a one-dimensional anecdote, to a two-dimensional screen to a complex human being with a role in the history of his times.

Richard’s story stuck out like an exotic butterfly against the otherwise gray bark of our family tree. To me, the Ernsthausens always seemed anchored in rural Ohio. Grandpa still farms the plot of land my dad and his six brothers grew up on. Most of my cousins attended the same high school as their parents before them. Every Ernsthausen male (present company included) was the Next Great Hype to make it to the NBA or MLB before plateauing against the underwhelming competition rural Ohio has to offer. Construction is the family trade, passed down from father to son (present company excluded). Almost every man in the family works as a contractor, often working jobs together.

Around junior high, I started to feel — or to create — some distance from that family. I became a strident atheist, defiantly resting my hands at my sides while the family said grace before Thanksgiving dinners. The movies and music and books that became my favorites romanticized critical thought and escape from the strictures of small town life. I cultivated youthful delusions of grandeur — of being a great scientist or artist or thinker — rather than a vision of a nice home and good family. Soon I came to see myself as the odd man out in the Ernsthausen family.

And now here was Richard, cut from the same genetic material as the rest of us, who apparently also felt an overwhelming urge to get away from the flatness of Ohio. Who also wanted a view of the larger world stage, and who clearly had found it.

I wanted to find out more, as much to learn about myself as to learn about him.

Fortuitous encounter

Traveling down to Key West felt like hunting for a ghost. It seemed like, somehow, I’d find traces of myself in the landscape that might tell me where I came from. Like part of me had been there before.

A week or two ahead of the trip, I’d made a few calls and tracked down John Kiraly, Richard’s long-time partner. I knew him as the guy who painted the picture of a mysterious, ancient-looking room of marble pillars and fountains overlooking a serene sea that hung in my parents’ living room. As a child, I’d stared at it for hours, imagining the fantasy world at which it hinted.

As it turned out, John was also the man in the suit who had dumped Richard’s ashes out of the urn a few feet upwind from me 20 years ago.

The first time we talked, it was for the better part of two hours. I could tell he was feeling me out for what I knew or didn’t know, and what I wanted to know. Afterward, satisfied of my intentions, we made plans for a visit while I was in Florida.

Even in that short conversation, I sensed the trip would be an opportunity to learn about the secret world of grown-ups in my family that had been spared the dozen or so cousins sitting around the kids’ table.

By sheer luck — a praying man might call it fate — I found the one person in Key West who I most needed to interview. Until I found her, I didn’t even know June Keith existed.

It was a chance introduction: My fiancée, Sally, was so excited by our mission, she asked random strangers in Key West if they knew Richard. In the gift shop of a restaurant called Blue Heaven, a woman named Karen Rosenblatt, it turned out, did.

Talking about my uncle, Karen told me the tale of a gentle giant, humble, with a devilish wit and an unforgettable belly laugh, one that I would hear about over and over again as I talked to relatives and friends who knew him.

Before we left for dinner, Karen insisted that I take a book called “Postcards from Paradise,” a collection of Miami Herald columns that contained a chapter on Uncle Dick’s death. The author, June Keith, had been Richard’s “right-hand woman” Karen said. She also gave me June’s number.

It was the first of many kindnesses extended to me by those who knew Richard. It was as though I were reaping a harvest of good will sown by Uncle Dick long before I was born.

A natural leader

Sally and I met June for lunch two days later at a café just a few blocks away from where Uncle Dick lived and down the street from the art gallery he owned.

From her, I learned Richard had something of a Midas touch when it came to both business and people. He started out in the hair dressing business in Toledo, Ohio, founding a set of popular salons called Sir Richard’s in the 1960s.

The money he made from selling that business, combined with an inheritance from his mother’s farm, allowed him and a roommate from college to invest in real estate in south Florida and Key West in the early 1970s. At the time, Key West was experiencing the aftereffects of a decommissioned naval base that had once sustained a little downtown. Property was cheap and abundant, and the two were able to claim prime properties on Duval Street, the main drag of the city.

For all his talent, June insists, Richard wasn’t ambitious. He wanted to be independent, he wanted to explore the world and above all he wanted to have fun. She said he was more or less drafted by the gay business community to run for city council in the late 1970s. From there, the gravitational pull of his charm — and his good sense —took him upward to the mayor’s office.

The first race was hard fought. In local terms, it was framed as a battle between the “newcomers,” transplants to Key West like Richard, and the “Conchs,” the folks who claimed generational ties to the island and entitlement to its corridors of power. Richard positioned himself as the reform candidate, the businessman who would run Key West government like a business rather than the extended family patronage network that embodied what some Key Westers called the “Bubba system.”

To the extent that homosexuality was an issue in the race, it was one raised through innuendo by Richard’s main opponent, Richard Kerr. He ran ads proclaiming himself a “family man,” with an implication that was obvious. At one point, Kerr’s campaign took out a full page ad in the Key West Citizen insinuating Richard was allied with a group of “radicals” who wanted to turn the island into their own “obscene playground” because he opposed an ordinance against nude beaches. One of Kerr’s supporters, city councilman Joe Balbontin, warned that a Heyman victory would lead to national headlines and more gays flocking to the island.

Balbontin was right: Richard’s victory did make national headlines. For weeks afterward, well-wishers from around the country wrote in, many of them including clips from their local newspapers with headlines declaring that Key West had elected a gay mayor.

Peter Ilchuk, Richard’s campaign manager and chief architect of his entry into politics, recalled his conversation with a television producer from New York, who called to see if they could get an interview with Key West’s newly elected gay mayor.

“We don’t have a gay mayor,” Peter remembers telling the producer. “But we do have a mayor who happens to be gay: Would you like to talk with him?”

In the shine of the national spotlight, no one knew how high Richard’s star would rise. It turned out he liked politics. He was good at it. There was talk of the governor’s mansion.

That was before the first signs of the disease that would take his life emerged. Toward the end of his two-year term, shortly after I was born, Richard found himself suffering from a stubborn case of shingles. It caused him terrible pain, and he made the difficult decision to sit on the sidelines when it came time for reelection.

Two years later, his symptoms in abatement, Richard again threw his hat in the mayoral ring. He was very popular in the people’s memory, June recalled. He won a second time, beating powerful ex-mayor Charles McCoy in a runoff.

By the mid-1990s, Uncle Dick’s symptoms became progressively worse. He barely survived the first bout of pneumonia that took advantage of his weakened immune system. The second time the infection struck, it came alongside the opportunistic cancer Koposi’s sarcoma.

If the pneumonia didn’t get him, doctors said, the sarcoma likely would.

Richard was tired of hospitals and doctors. If his number was up, he wanted it to happen at home.

One of my favorite anecdotes about Richard concerns the sanitation plant in Key West. Before Richard had it built, Key West faced fines for dumping untreated sewage into the ocean around the city. Richard pushed for a modern complex that could handle the refuse.

According to Peter, seeing the plant through was one of Richard’s most significant accomplishments.

So when officials from the city came calling in the final weeks of his life, asking him what he’d like named after him, Richard got a kick out of the sewage plant being the most logical public memorial. One last ironic joke, Peter guessed, one that would stand the test of time.

Before we left, June took us up the street and showed us Richard’s old place: a sprawling set of buildings that once shared a courtyard off the island’s main drag. She then took us up the street and pointed out two or three other buildings that Richard owned. Today ,they are T-shirt shops catering to tourists.

Back on the farm

Like all family histories, mine is filled with any number of stories that sound too good to be true, but they live on. Here’s one of them, in case you’re wondering how a conservative Midwestern family reacted to news that one of their own was gay.

Back in 1983, when Uncle Dick made his first run for mayor, the family was rooting for him just like they did when he played basketball in high school and later at Ohio State on scholarship.

According to family legend, aka Mom, the paper came the morning after the election, and the headline read something like “Gay wins race for mayor in Key West.” My dad, the story goes, read no further. Clearly Richard, he thought, had been defeated.

My mom then picked up the paper, and read on.

"I’ve got some good news and some, well, not bad news for you," Mom told Dad. "Richard has, in fact, won the race. Also, your Uncle Dick is gay, and by the way, I told you so."

It seems that Richard never did come out to the family writ-large, which I guess wasn’t unusual in those days. June says he struggled to reconcile the life he wanted to lead — sexually and otherwise — with the button-down style of the family he cared for dearly back home. At times, she says, he felt like, with the notable exception of his niece Marsha, they’d disowned him.

“He never could have lived here (in Grand Rapids, Ohio),” Marsha told me over lunch one day this summer. She loved Uncle Dick, and wishes he hadn’t felt that way.

“It was something to get used to,” my grandmother, Glenda, recalls of learning about Richard’s sexuality after he moved away. Mostly, though, she remembers her younger brother fondly for taking her on some of the few trips she ever made away from the farming community where she raised seven sons.

One last stop

The day after meeting with June, it was time to head back to Atlanta. But there was one last stop to make: to meet the painter of that mysterious villa hanging in my childhood imagination.

John and Richard had been partners for 22 years; John now lived alone in a condo outside Miami. I knew from our phone conversations that his health wasn’t great: he was always off to see some doctor or another. And I gathered that there had been a deep rift after Richard’s death that separated him from our family.

When I pulled up, I found myself lingering for a moment in the driveway. What would I bring up? What would I leave unsaid? To what degree was I there as a journalist? To what degree, a member of the family? The drive hadn’t been nearly long enough for me to sort it all out.

John was all apologies from the moment I rang the door. Apologies for the small Chihuahua that kept barking and licking my feet. Apologies for the place not being cleaner. Apologies, in the end, for digressing, for remembering too much and not being able to remember more.

The night before our visit, John had taken out Richard’s photographs to find ones he wanted to show me. He offered me a beer, and together we spread them out on the coffee table in his living room while afternoon storm clouds gathered outside the window.

As I slid them around, John leaped from image to image as memories lit up his mind. In short, often disconnected strokes, he painted a portrait of Richard for me that spanned their first meeting in a Miami bar until Richard’s last breath at home in Key West.

He kept returning again and again to Richard’s last weeks.

“He died in my arms,” John said,holding back his emotions as best he could.

I was a fool for not leaving more time to be with John. The departure time for my flight home crept closer and closer, and I had to leave with so much more left to say.

Before I could go, John gave me a photo of Richard that now hangs on my refrigerator. It’s from his first inaugural speech as mayor. He’s dressed in a marvelously tailored suit, accented with a flower in the front pocket. His beard is capped in snowy white. His hair is about halfway through the full retreat that is common to the men of our family. He looks every bit the part of the elegant mayor, which everyone I talked to remembers.

Missed connections

A few months after my trip, I got an email from June.

She was moving out of her house in Key West. As she was clearing the place out, she came across a few videotapes of Richard; treasures, she called them. She wanted to know if I’d take good care of them.

I told her of course I would.

In the months since my visit to the Keys, I’d been back to Toledo to talk to family members who knew Uncle Dick. I’d scheduled a trip up to the library at Cornell University, where Richard’s scrapbooks and folders with memorabilia from his campaign were deposited.

I’d learned so much about the man, poring over news clips and photos and old letters, but I’d never seen him alive. I’d never heard his voice. I’d learned a lot about a politician and a lot about a friend. But without seeing him for myself, it felt like I was still working with a tall tale of sorts.

One recent Sunday afternoon, I finally found a VCR and time to sit down with the collection of tapes June sent. I wasn’t sure what they included, so I spread them out on a table and started from left to right, plopping them in one by one.

Turned out there was a pretty wide assortment on there, everything from cable access shows about city issues while Richard was in office to city council meetings.

The first glimpse I got of him, Richard was officiating one of those meetings. He had a deep baritone voice and spoke in the deliberate, unaccented manner of a Midwesterner with a degree in broadcast journalism. He cracked wry, sometimes self-effacing jokes to lighten the otherwise dry proceedings.

But it wasn’t until I got to the tape of June’s wedding — which Richard hosted and officiated — that I found what I was looking for.

Marsha, June, Peter, John, Karen— every person I spoke to always mentioned one thing about Richard, and that was his commanding presence in a room.

“When he was in the bar, you knew it,” Marsha told me. You couldn’t mistake the deep laugh that bellowed out of his enormous frame, his gentle attentiveness that put everyone around him at ease.

In the video, June nervously turns this way and that, chatting with some of her wedding guests, when Richard steps into the frame. They banter a bit back and forth about her hair (which he’d finally styled for her after years of requests). As the tape rolls on,someone catches Richard off-guard with a remark. His mouth opens wide, and he erupts into a belly laugh that pierces the commotion in the room.

I finally saw how Uncle Dick fit into place. Even dressed neatly in a pink sport coat and white slacks in his island villa — an image that couldn’t be further from home — I found something in his beard, his receding hair, his towering stature, even his laugh that was familiar. I saw an amalgamation of my six uncles, in a way, and a little bit of myself, too.

As the tape wound down, I felt, frankly, like I’d been cheated. That was as close as I would ever get to meeting Richard. Much as it seemed like it might happen at times, I was never really going to find the ghost I’d inhaled 20 years ago.

I don’t feel so judgmental these days about my family or my community as I used to. I lament, rather than celebrate, my inability to connect with my roots on a deeper level.

But there’s a difference between respecting differences and bonding over shared interests and experiences.

I know that if Uncle Dick had lived, if we’d met as adults, we’d have found our common thread. We’d have bonded over our wanderlust, our openness to different people and perspectives,our senses of humor. He’d have helped guide me when I was young and full of angst and blind ambition.

But most of all, I think we’d have had a great time getting to know each other. For my part, I know I did.

Behind the story

HOW WE GOT THE STORY

Data specialists are a different breed of journalist. They usually have their braniac heads buried all day in multiple screens of code that make the rest of us a bit woozy to look at. They tend to see the world in bar graphs and pie charts and quantifying concepts I can’t even imagine. They provide the facts and numbers on which many of our investigative stories are built. One thing they don’t do very often is a write a story. So when Jeff Ernsthausen suggested he’d like to write a Personal Journey, I was thrilled at the opportunity to work with him, but a little trepidatious. I needn’t have been. Turns out, Ernsthausen isn’t just a number cruncher. He’s a masterful writer and he has a remarkable story to tell about family connections that span generations in unexpected ways.

Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor
personaljourneys@ajc.com


ABOUT THE REPORTER

Jeff Ernsthausen is a data specialist on the investigative team at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. His past work at the AJC has included quantitative analyses of teacher evaluations, police shootings and voting rights in Georgia, as well as the creation of Predict-A-Bill, the AJC’s statistical forecasting model for legislation before the Georgia General Assembly. A native of Northwest Ohio and a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, Jeff joined the AJC after a short career as an economic analyst with the Federal Reserve and editorial internships with Harper’s and The Nation.

Jeff Ernsthausen
jeff.ernsthausen@ajc.com