As We See It

[Vegas On My Mind]

Saying goodbye: A Las Vegas character, and a great man, is gone

Steve Friess and Walt, exploring the Bellagio Conservatory.

That day at UMC when I brought Walt over to meet my friend David might very well have been the day Walt’s heroic past became real to me. Before we walked in, we glimpsed David, all of 33 years old, through the door’s window sitting with his back to us, his flimsy hospital gown wide open. “My God,” Walt gasped, taking in how David’s skin seemed stretched to barely cover the pointy parts of his emaciated frame. “This boy is like something out of the ’80s. I didn’t think this happened to people anymore.”

In 2004, it happened much less often. But for whatever reason, unchecked disease ravaged David, and he’d traveled from Chicago to Vegas to seek my help. A few months later, of course, he would be dead.

On our way home that day, Walt was uncharacteristically muted, sullen, shocked. He was such a reliably boisterous presence in my life, a curmudgeon with a pithy aphorism always at the ready. Now he was elsewhere, muttering to himself again and again, “I did not think this happened anymore.”

This moment replays itself unbidden as I contemplate the life of Dr. Walter Herron, who died November 19 at a Las Vegas hospice at age 90. For a decade, he and his 71-year-old widower, Terry Wilsey, reveled in their recurring roles in my Weekly columns as “The Olds,” my own private Statler and Waldorf. They sat in the proverbial balcony box of my Las Vegas life making wry, wicked and uncompromising observations that were as insightful as they were amusing.

Yet now that Walt has died, I worry about remembering him as a caricature rather than as a character. I can write about the outlandish things he said and the f*ck-it-I’m-old Sophia Petrillo manner with which he said them. There’s the bejeweled jockstrap he got as a gag gift and gyrated in at his 80th birthday party. That night in the late ’90s—before it was quite so acceptable—when Walt loudly informed a waitress at the Boulder Station coffee shop that we couldn’t order yet because “Terry, who is my gay lover, is still parking the car.” Or the time he got drunk at Thanksgiving and scandalized my then-13-year-old Little Brother, his mom and grandmother with jokes about the enormity of his dick.

Yes, Walt was wacky and ribald, and those who loved him reveled in his naughty crustiness. But that wasn’t what made him a great man. And, yes, he was a great man.

Walt, as I was reminded by his flashback that day with David, had already lived a life of great purpose before we met. He was an American patriot who sublimated his sexual orientation in the 1950s to serve as a flight surgeon in Korea. He married a single mother and raised her son as his own after she left them both. It was a cosmic repayment—his grandparents raised him when, at the height of the Great Depression, his own mother abandoned him.

Walt never made the big bucks in medicine. Instead, he worked first as a small-town doctor in Pomeroy, Washington, and later as a public health official in Tacoma. In the early 1980s, after being fired as department director by the mayor for revealing his sexual orientation at a public meeting to emphasize the health needs of gays and lesbians, he and Terry came to Vegas. Thus began his career as a doctor at the Veterans Administration hospital, where he stood on the front lines of the AIDS crisis. Other health workers were terrified of the sickly young men and their deadly virus; Dr. Herron made sure to hug each of them because, he once told me, “Human beings need to be touched so they know we know they are human.”

By the time my then-partner Jim and I met Walt and Terry at a gay book group we formed in 1997, Walt had recently retired from the VA and was starting a dotage of playing piano, painting abstract art, attending medical lectures and spending luxurious afternoons reading thick tomes about gay people or British royalty. He relinquished the mantle of gay activist to Terry but remained a reliable donor, volunteer and presence for any local LGBT cause. They lived modestly, honestly, generously.

Still, back then I wouldn’t have given two odd old dudes much thought were it not for Jim, an aspiring doctor. He and Walt bonded over medicine, and soon the four of us were inseparable. Indeed, Walt taught me the importance of not looking past older people, of the infinite value and thrill of listening to them talk about the lives they lived. In exchange, he and Terry provided me with a familial structure in Las Vegas, even after Jim and I broke up. For a decade, I ate dinner at their place at least once a week, often running interference or listening with bemusement as a boy does when his fairy grandparents squabble over nothing important.

It’s been more than a year since Walt, who suffered from dementia, could recognize me. We’ve had plenty of time to prepare. But death forces you to realize an unwelcome change is permanent, so it hurts. I’d say I’ll never forget him, but Walt hated when people said that. “You could get Alzheimer’s someday,” he’d say, “and then you’d be a liar.”

Man, I miss that old crank.

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