The Passing of an Icon: Jean Nelson

Posted on 23 Mar 2016 at 11:36am
Jean Nelson

Jean Nelson

A NOTICE FROM THE DALLAS WAY:

It is with sadness that The Dallas Way announces the recent passing of one of its first contributors and supporters, Jean Nelson, the mother of the great gay rights activist Bill Nelson. Jean passed away peacefully in her home in Houston, at the age of 93, on Wednesday, March 16, 2016. She was born October 30, 1922.

In the tumultuous decade of the 1980s, Jean’s life seemed to be one of constant challenge and adversity. She lost her husband of 26 years when he had an automobile accident on his way home from work. She then became the main caregiver for his aging parents, both of whom also died during this period.

Her son Bill let her know about his sexual orientation shortly before it was published in a headline story in the Dallas Time Herald, bringing his 10-year teaching career at W. T. White High School to an end as he rose to become a principal leader of the Dallas gay community. Soon she found herself supporting Bill in his efforts to combat the AIDS crisis of the 1980s through the creation of the AIDS Food Pantry, the AIDS Resource Center and the AIDS Clinic.

Bill’s partner, Terry Tebedo, became Jean’s “second son.” When both Bill and Terry were diagnosed with HIV, she became their chief caregiver. Terry died in 1988. Shortly thereafter Jean moved into Bill’s home to serve for 18 months as his main caregiver. About this experience, Jean once said: “I had gotten extremely mad when Bill’s doctor announced to us that Bill had two more weeks to live. He looked at me and said, ‘Mrs. Nelson, you need to put Bill in hospice and get on with your life.’ What a thing to say to a mother and son who continued to tell others you don’t ever give up!”

Jean eventually lost Bill to AIDS in 1990.

Wanting to leave behind the painful memories of her last decade in Dallas, Jean soon moved to Houston to live near her daughter Sheila, and Sheila’s young children. But she found she had been forever changed by her experiences in Dallas. At the age of 70 she decided to become a trained and certified hospice volunteer. The course she enrolled in had a meaningful first assignment:

Bill Jean Terry

From left, Bill Nelson, Jean Nelson, Terry Tebedo

“Our first assignment was to write a letter to the person we had lost. My first reaction – NO WAY !! That night I was awakened with all the words I wanted to say to my son. I got up at 3 a.m. 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.”

Her next challenge was to face the idea of making a panel for her son as part of the AIDS Quilt project. “Before I left Dallas, Bill’s friends had asked me if I could make a block for the AIDS quilt. This was a tool being used to bring awareness of how quickly AIDS was spreading. Now I was ready. So while I was taking the [hospice] course, Sheila and I created a beautiful pictorial review of Bill’s life. We also made one for Terry, Bill’s partner.”

When she finished the hospice course and became certified, a new career opened up before her. “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 had been 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 have been replaced with laughter from good memories. Love leaves behind more than death takes away.”

JT Mike Bruce Dick Jean

Dick Weaver (red stripe not facing camera) then from left, Mike Anglin, Jean, Bruce Monroe and John Thomas.

Meanwhile, back in Dallas, the Nelson-Tebedo Clinic was being relocated to a new and larger facility. Jean was asked to return to Dallas to speak at the opening ceremony. She mustered to courage to return to Dallas and to stand up in front of so many who knew and loved her “two sons.”

Here is what she said to them:

“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 for 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 and 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.”

On November 28, 2001, Jean was asked to speak at the second World AIDS Day worship service taking place at the John Wesley United Methodist Church in Houston. Here is what she shared with that audience:

“Last year, when I read the announcement in the church paper that John Wesley would be observing World AIDS Day, 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 including 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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