Remembering Shilts

February 25, 1994|By Rob Morse

San Francisco -- THREE hours before Randy Shilts' memorial service here Tuesday the Rev. Fred Phelps, frequent-flier bigot, was still on the plane from Topeka, Kan., with his "Fags Burn in Hell" signs in the overhead compartments.

Three of Randy's friends were sitting in the Rev. Cecil Williams' office in Glide Memorial United Methodist Church, taking a break from setting up the service.

"We figured that Randy is the one who called the ol' Rev.," said Linda Alband, who was Randy's assistant for many years and had known him since his Oregon days in the mid-1970s. Things were getting so surreal it seemed plausible that Randy got on the cellular in heaven and invited the ol' Rev. Phelps to remind us of what true evil we are up against.

Randy always had high spirits and an unshakable sense of mission and self. Ms. Alband recalls that when he moved from Oregon into her house on Fair Oaks Street, he would blare "Jesus Christ, Superstar" on his stereo.

And then he would burst into her room yelling, "Randy Shilts, Superstar!" That he is. Or was?

Jennifer Finlay, Randy's assistant on his book on gays in the military, "Conduct Unbecoming," said she had knocked on the casket at the mortuary. "I think this is going to be like Tom Sawyer, and he'll turn out to be alive in the back of the church."

Later, as tears started to gather, Jennifer knocked again on the casket as it sat in front of the gathering crowd in the church.

Randy Shilts, Superstar. He achieved that status by working hard and brilliantly, by being honest, and by fighting a good fight only he was positioned to fight. He wrote the unflinching history of the AIDS epidemic, "And the Band Played On," and filled the windows with the book at B. Daltons in shopping centers from Escondido to Jacksonville.

Calling the ol' Rev. to liven up his funeral celebration is something Randy Shilts just might have done. He always had a sense of the dramatic, and what more dramatic way of reminding San Francisco that sometimes we forget who the real enemies are?

All the politicians came, but Randy couldn't attend his own party. Unthinkable. But somehow this fits a career spent fighting city halls of various magnitudes.

Randy brought us all together Tuesday, from his closest friends to his bitterest rivals to those who knew only his writing.

Later, as the jokes and remembrances turned into tears, young research assistant Jennifer Finlay stood over her boss Randy Shilts' casket and said, "I have to do his honor well for the rest of my life. That's what my mother would have said."

All our mothers would have said that, if they'd known him.

Rob Morse wrote this for the San Francisco Examiner.

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