Don King was a humble man. Sometimes, I think, too humble considering the immense work and contributions he gave to Charlotte and its LGBT community.
In 2012, King — and that trademark humility of his — left yet another mark on our community. He asked that the annual community service awards which had been named in his honor for nearly two decades be renamed. The Charlotte Business Guild, keeper of the awards since 2004, obliged.
Yet, Don’s legacy — all of his community work, his kindness and, above all, his courage — will live on in other ways as community members pause in remembrance after his passing on Thursday, Oct. 29. He was 72.
Don came to Charlotte in the 1970s. It was a move prompted by fear. In 1967, Don had been married. Four years later, when he was 29, he and his wife separated and Don became close to a mutual friend.
Just last year, Don told me the story in a feature on gay life in the 1970s:
“At the time, I was living in Durham,” he says. “My first occasion to go to a gay bar was with a man who worked in a wig shop just a block across the street from the newspaper in Durham that I worked at the time. I knew this wig shop because of one my fellow sports writers, his wife worked there.”
King says he and the man became close after he attended a party at King’s home.
“He was invited over to a party I had at my house that included primarily straight folks, but he came with the wife of this other sports writer,” he recounts. “I took him back home and we must have sat in front of his house and talked for two hours. He was the first gay man I ever really had a decent conversation with.”
Eventually, he and the man visited a gay bar in Chapel Hill, King’s first outing to such a bar.
“It was such a fine experience,” King says. “And, in the meantime, he and I had had sex. He was the first guy I’d ever had real sex with. Once my wife and I separated and I had sex with this guy, I realized where I truly belonged.”
Despite King’s newfound sense of acceptance, fears still abounded.
“At the newspaper, I never came out to anybody,” King says, noting most of his friends at the time were never out, either. “Being openly gay was rare, in my experience, especially in mainstream employment.”
After a co-worker once noticed his car parked at the home of the wig shop employee, Don decided to move. At the time, Don told us it was out of self-preservation.
Charlotte is lucky, in a sense, that Don felt that tinge of fear in Durham. Without it, Don might not have moved here. And, without Don, Charlotte’s LGBT community might not have ever been the same.
Don wasn’t the only openly gay leader in Charlotte’s early LGBT community, but he was most certainly among the most outspoken and the most visionary. He helped begin early LGBT support and social groups and strategized on community visibility and “public relations,” as he often wrote in early issues of this newspaper.
His role as an employee at The Charlotte Observer also placed him in a unique position, where he could guide his colleagues and his fellow community members in crafting more positive media portrayals of the LGBT community.
I had occasion to meet Don soon after I moved to Charlotte. I was a 21-year-old youth hired to take on the role Don had first helmed when I was just four months old. I was anxious to meet the man who’d had such a hand in the early history of the newspaper for which I now so gratefully and excitedly worked. Don’s smile was contagious. His knowledge of community history and LGBT issues unparalleled.
I learned a lot from Don and am grateful for every chance I had to speak and meet with him. The last time I did was in the spring. We sat and ate lunch at the Landmark diner, discussing old community history as I interviewed him for his thoughts and experiences. His smile and generous personality were as strong as ever — despite his diagnosis for pancreatic cancer two years ago.
I will miss my chats with Don, but I’ll hold on fast to what I learned from him.
And this newspaper, his own personal archives, the lives he touched across the community, the memories others will cherish — they’ll all serve as lasting memorials to a man who came out at the right time and the right place in history to make changes for generations to come.
Don would never have been one to ask for praise or recognition. In fact, many of the early articles in qnotes, which he undoubtedly wrote, are unsigned. He might silently balk at the amount of space the newspaper is devoting to him in this print edition. But, if he were here, he’d be as gracious as ever, with a big smile and a deeply sincere and hearty thank you. : :