Sunday, July 5, 2015

In Memory of Friends Long Gone

Twice in the week I've had reason to think a former student and long time friend Bradford Clay Jones who died twenty years ago this spring. First when the Supreme Court announced their decision on same sex marriage last Friday and  then again on Monday when I learned that the community college system that I serve (KCTCS) had nominated me for a state-wide teaching award (my academic dean says I've "won" it, but officially I've only been nominated, and I like to hold off celebration until things are official).  Both times when I heard the news I thought of Clay and wished that he had lived to see it. 

Clay was a student in my SOC 101 Introductory Sociology course at the University of Kentucky in the spring term of 1981. Clay had come to UK from Russellville, Kentucky a small farming community in the western part of the state. He came with his best friend, a red headed freckled young farmer, whose name I sadly can no longer remember although I can see his face as clear as it was yesterday. They joined the Phi Delta Theta fraternity together, took their general education classes together including sociology, but had different majors and different career/life paths. Clay was brilliant, articulate, wild, crazy, daring, fun, charming. He was clearly a leader among his fraternity brothers.   Clay got his degree in education from the University of Kentucky's department of Kinesiology and Health Promotion.

After graduation Clay entered the Air Force  as a 1st Lieutenant and began corresponding regularly with me. He wrote long chatty letters about work and life. He loved serving his country and was posted on first at Dover, Delaware and then near Kansas City. His job involved providing healthy exercise and activity programs for people stationed at the AF Bases. 

Clay also had an active personal life outside work. He participated with local community theater groups in the communities near the AF bases where he was stationed. I remember how much fun he had with a production of Oklahoma! Although Clay had explored and experimented with his sexual identity in college, it was not until more than a year after graduation that Clay finally "came out" to himself and to friends and family, but not of course to the USAF. This was well before "Don't ask, Don't tell."

While stationed near Kansas City, Clay met the love of his life Gene and entered into a committed relationship. A local minister officiated at Clay and Gene's vows which they considered just as binding as if they had been legal. Rather than face being separated from Gene by the Air Force posting him outside the U.S. Clay allowed the Air Force to learn of his sexual orientation and discharge him in 1984. 

Clay entered the Master of Public Administration in Nonprofit Management at the University Missouri, Kansas City and received his MPA in 1986.  In 1989 he became the Executive director Kansas division American Cancer Society.

Diagnosed as HIV positive in the late 1980's Clay maintained his health for a number of years.  He advocated for AIDS research as a board member of the Kansas City AIDS Research Consortium. In the early 1990's his HIV infection became full-blown AIDS. He suffered among other things from a histoplasmosis infection that spread from his lungs throughout his body. In June of 1995 I received the sad news from Clay's spouse Gene that AIDS had taken its toll and Clay died May 1, 1995. 

I wish that Clay had lived to see same sex marriage legalized across the nation; for him and Gene to have had the full legal rights of married couples. They were married for a decade before Clay's death and yet Gene received none of the benefits a married person should have on the death of his spouse. 

I also wish that Clay could have lived to see me receive this state-wide teaching award for "inspiring" Kentucky students to become contributing members of society. Clay was one of the earliest and most enthusiastic supporters of my teaching career.  I met him while I was still an "apprentice" graduate student instructor, and his friendship over the next 14 years was very influential in my development as a teacher.  By no means the last student to become a life-long friend, Clay was the first. 

Thanks for the memories, Clay.