The grouchiest old man I ever knew had been transformed and renewed.
“It’s all about love,” he said. “That’s all that matters. Love. If you don’t have love, you’ve got nothing. And I love that man. I really, really do.”
For the 17 years I have known Dr. Walter Herron, who turns 88 this week, I’d never heard him say anything even vaguely romantic. Ordinarily, Walt groused about and nagged his partner, Terry Wilsey, 69. I don’t even remember ever seeing them hold hands.
Then, five weeks ago, they got married. Evidently, that made all the difference.
Readers of my original Weekly column may recall The Olds, a gay couple who befriended me when my first partner and I arrived in Nevada as 20-somethings in 1996. I’d regarded them as my fairy grandparents; they referred to me often as “their boy.” In an era when gay men seemed incapable of being friends without infusing sexual overtones to the interaction, Walt and Terry represented a more sedate ideal and a safe, comfortable foundation for my life in a fast city where I had no family.
By the time I met them, whatever attraction had brought them together nearly 20 years earlier was hard to see. Walt had recently retired and was becoming progressively more introverted even as Terry was in the prime of his work and social life. When they met at ages 52 and 33 respectively, Walt was the caretaker; by the mid-1990s, the roles were in the awkward process of reversal.
Walt was always grumpy and salty in an amusing Sophia Petrillo way, but as he aged that calcified into a persistent anger over failing memory and Terry’s frequent absences for work and events. The closest thing they seemed to have to an endearing tradition was their habit of eating breakfast at new casinos the first Saturday they opened. Other than that, they seemed to just keep on keeping on.
I’d asked over the years why they didn’t have a wedding, but neither saw the point if it was legally meaningless where they lived. But with a pair of landmark Supreme Court rulings in June and some directives from the Obama White House, a rationale appeared: Terry was finally eligible to receive Social Security survivor benefits and widower benefits from Walt’s military pensions.
Thus, practical financial aims and an awareness of Walt’s advancing age prompted The Olds to fly to Bellingham, Washington, where same-sex marriage is legal, to be wed in Terry’s sister’s backyard by a lesbian rabbi. It happened so fast, I couldn’t even get there. I thought I had missed my one shot at seeing them acknowledge their love for one another.
I had not. This weekend, the newlyweds threw themselves a reception at the Hilton Garden Inn in Las Vegas. It was an understated affair, featuring a fruit plate, a veggie tray, a cheese platter and a handful of friends—every one of whom had a genuine connection to them. None of us could get over Walt.
He was happy.
Walt, finally, could look upon his long, productive life with satisfaction and pride. That unshakable sullenness had, for five weeks and counting, been replaced by a teen-like giddiness about the man who was finally his husband.
This happened at a point where an 88-year-old man had nothing else to do but take inventory of his life. He was a former Air Force flight surgeon who lived in terror during the Korean War that the military would discover the letters he received from his boyfriend. He was the former director of public health in Tacoma, Washington, who was sacked by the mayor when it became known that he was gay. And he was a VA physician who ministered to countless terrified young men as they suffered gruesome deaths in a nation that believed their disease was a God-given punishment.
Ever wonder why legal same-sex marriage matters? Walter Herron’s country finally saw his relationship was as valuable as anyone else’s. Somehow, that made him believe it, too.