Bill and Charles don't gush when speaking about their relationship. Words like "love" and "romance" don't come naturally to them. Maybe it's a reflection of an earlier age when discretion was a virtue. Maybe it's an instinctive protectiveness, a reluctance to invite scorn. Or then again, maybe it's just a guy thing.
But Bill Hughlett and Charles Hayes are still most comfortable describing themselves as friends. If you press, best friends. Of course, they are that. After all, isn't friendship an essential ingredient in any long-lasting marriage? And, legal niceties aside, a marriage is exactly what Bill and Charles have shared, and for an uncommonly long time.
Their romance - let's agree to call it that even if they don't - pre-dates the Thunderbird, rock 'n' roll, and "The Catcher in the Rye." Their relationship dawned before the word "gay" had been coined as a way of describing their pairing. "Homosexual" was the term of art then although even that word was rarely uttered in polite society, at least not without blushes.
Not that Bill and Charles felt like outcasts. That's the funny thing about their long biographies, both singly and as a couple. Both accepted that they were gay at a young age, and neither believes that what today would be called their "lifestyle" was ever an obstacle in their lives. Not in their family relations. Not in their socializing. Not in their careers.
For Bill and Charles, you can't exactly say it was love at first sight. Back in 1950, they noticed each other at some of the downtown bars that catered to a homosexual clientele. (Yes, they existed then, but you would never think of entering one without a tie and jacket.)
Charles, then still a senior at City College, shouldn't even have been in those places because he was underage. In any case, at the end of the Labor Day weekend, they both found themselves at the Yorktown Inn, a drinking establishment on East Monument, where they got to flirting with each other. This was said and that, and eventually one of them suggested convening at Bill's house out on Edmondson Avenue. Bill hedged his bets by also inviting Charles' companion that evening, Stanley. "I wasn't sure that [Charles] would be so interesting," Bill recalls.
Charles must have proven fascinating. "Stanley got sick and went home," Charles says. "I stayed. That was it."
Now 83, Bill is 15 years older than Charles and in frail health. His hands shake uncontrollably, and he leans heavily on a cane as he slowly ventures from room to room in the elegant Mount Vernon townhouse they have owned for more than 40 years. He is rather tall, although you get more of a sense of his height from old, black-and-white photos of him and Charles on Fire Island than you do from his presence today.
Bill enjoyed a long and satisfying career at Hutzler's Department store. He began as a stockboy in ladies coats but quickly rose to a buyer in a succession of women's clothing departments. Ultimately, he was promoted to the lofty position of fashion coordinator for the store. Naturally, he didn't proclaim his homosexuality, but neither did he consciously hide it. His colleagues all knew. The Hutzlers themselves knew. When they invited Bill to social functions, they always included Charles.
When the store threw itself a 100th anniversary party, Bill and Charles came costumed as matching Hutzler's gift boxes. The tag on Bill's box said, "A gift from Hutzler's means more," which was the store's slogan. For Charles, who is a good dealer shorter than Bill, the tag read, "Even a small gift from Hutzler's means more." They were the hit of the party.
Charles hair has completely whitened since then, and he wears it in a kind of page-boy style. He favors pastel-colored sweaters, not the severe ties and jackets he wore during his many years as a Baltimore City schoolteacher, one with a reputation for brooking no funny business. For most of his 32-year career, he taught at Western High School where he was appointed chairman of the history department. When Charles retired in 1986, he was head of humanities at City College, his alma mater (and Bill's).
`I'm sure they knew'
In all those years, his private life never came up in connection to his work. "I didn't advertise it or flaunt it," says Charles. "But I'm sure they knew."
He says every principal he worked under was aware of his relationship with Bill. Many came to dinners at their home. If that seems surprising now, Charles says many teachers and principals were gay. He never remembers there being an issue.