Early Charlotte LGBT leader Don King’s legacy celebrated

Leader remembered for kindness, courage and conviction during 'very different, very dangerous' era

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — More than 75 people attended a special celebration of life to remember the legacy of longtime Charlotte LGBT leader Don King.

King, 72, had battled pancreatic cancer for two years and died on Oct. 30.

The event at the McColl Center for Art + Innovation, with speakers who knew King professionally, through his community work and personally, was organized by a coalition of community members and organizations. [Ed. Note — This writer was among those who assisted in the event’s planning.]

Gay Men's Chorus of Charlotte's small ensemble 7th Son sing during a celebration of the life and legacy of Don King.

Gay Men’s Chorus of Charlotte’s small ensemble 7th Son sing during a celebration of the life and legacy of Don King.

Darryl Logsdon met King when he moved to Charlotte in 1982 and quickly got involved with events and organizations introduced to him by King. In 1983, Logsdon was the editor of the newsletter “Q-Notes,” then under the umbrella of non-profit Queen City Quordinators, founded by King and the late Billie Rose. King would go on to become the first editor of QNotes when it was established as a print newspaper in June 1986. He served through September 1987.

“He was the face of early Charlotte,” Logsdon told those gathered, sharing that King moved with diplomacy, poise and respect. “Don connected to people instantly and made them feel comfortable.”

King, who had helped to begin early social and support groups in the mid-to-late 1970s, became the 1980s ultimate go-to community spokesperson, said Logsdon. On equality issues, youth issues, legal issues and religious issues, King was the person most likely to speak out.

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After working all week at The Charlotte Observer, King would come home and work more at his Friends of Dorothy bookstore in the front of his apartment on East Blvd. At the time, Logsdon said it was King who first explained to him the phrase “Friends of Dorothy” and what it had meant in the community. And King put in all those extra hours — in a space, Logsdon said was a “community center in all but name … not for the money, but because it was needed.”

Jim Thompson met King later in his life, but he too found him full of empathy, courage and conviction. Speaking a few years ago at a Prime Timers meeting, Thompson said King knew everyone in the room and spent the evening recalling tales of community history, challenge and triumph.

Despite all those ups-and-downs of the community, “there was not a tiny bit of anger in his voice,” Thompson said. “He was thrilled how far we’ve progressed.”

When Thompson learned King had operated the Friends of Dorothy bookstore, “right then and there he earned a special place in my heart,” Thompson said. “Anyone who is a friend of Dorothy, a.k.a. Judy Garland, is a friend of mine.”

Thompson ended, “So it is more than appropriate that my words will end with just a couple references to the Wizard of Oz — when the great and powerful Oz returned to his humble self and was handing out awards to Dorothy’s fellow travelers, he tells the Tin Man, ‘A heart is not judged by how much you love, but by how much you are loved by others.’ By that standard, Don King has the most loving heart of all, and to paraphrase what Dorothy said to the Scarecrow, ‘Don, I think I’ll miss you most of all.’ Don, when my time comes, with any luck our paths will cross again, and I know just where to look — where troubles melt like lemon drops, way above the chimney tops, that’s where I’ll find you.”

In his professional life, King took great risk in coming out as a gay man in the 1970s. But his character and kindness soon won over The Charlotte Observer‘s staff. He started in the news room as a sports writer and soon moved to a marketing role, where he remained until his retirement.

“Don’s file is filled with compliments on his sense of duty,” said Cheryl Carpenter, managing editor of the Observer. “This credibility as a professional is how I always encountered Don. That gave him standing in this community and the Charlotte Observer to call out for fairness and diversity.”

Carpenter called King a “bulwark,” who led with a “calm smile, rich voice and demeanor of professionalism.”

King’s voice is still with us today, Carpenter added, encouraging attendees to call the Observer‘s main phone line, 704-358-5000. King’s voice still directs callers to the appropriate departments.

Gene Slone, a close personal friend of King’s, was with him in the final weeks and days of his life. A recent newcomer to Charlotte, Slone had met King while on vacation several years ago in Fort Lauderdale. King welcomed him into his circle with open arms.

“He was always about his community and loving his neighbor,” Slone said.

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John Quillin, director of Gay Men’s Chorus of Charlotte, met King in 1981. From Greensboro, he had never known an openly gay man and his trip to King’s bookstore was his first encounter with the gay community. “It was a huge shock to me and it was my very first introduction to gay culture,” he said. “I hadn’t even been to a gay bar when I met Don.”

The bookstore was an early oasis for Charlotte’s gay and lesbian community, Quillin said.

“He was engaging, he was clever, he was funny and warm, and he reveled in taking time to talk to everybody who went through that store,” Quillin shared. “The many books he had, though, were probably the least important things of the things he dispensed from there. He dispensed courage and he dispensed wisdom.”

Throughout his life, King worked to “make gay and lesbian people less scary, less foreign, less other,” Quillin recounted.

“Don saw opportunities and he was never one content to just sit and complain about a problem,” he said. “He didn’t wait for somebody to come up with a solution. He stood up and he did it. He put up his own money and his own job, which was at risk by being so visible when virtually nobody else was.”

Quillin added: “He took up unpopular people and unpopular causes at great risk to his own reputation and, in the process, he created an amazing legacy. He changed everything.”

Other speakers at the event included the Rev. Catherine Houchins, pastor of Metropolitan Community Church of Charlotte, where King was also involved early in its life as an organization, along with Charlotte Business Guild President Chad Sevearance and Joshua Burford, a staffer at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte and organizer of the LGBTQ Community Archive of Charlotte.

Announced for the first time at the memorial, Burford said King will be one of four community leaders after whom the community archive will be named in honor in the spring.

Musical remembrances were offered by the Gay Men’s Chorus of Charlotte’s small ensemble, 7th Son.

Special guests at the event included Charlotte Observer editor Rick Thames and neighbor, longtime fellow employee and event co-organizer Ellyn Ritterskamp. Longtime leaders in the community who knew King well also attended, including Chuck Patterson, Lainey Millen, Frank Kalian, Linda Lawyer and Tonda Taylor. Other leaders in attendance included attorney Connie Vetter, Charlotte Pride’s Gwen Pearson, LGBT Democrats of Mecklenburg County’s Cameron Joyce and LGBT Community Center of Charlotte’s Nate Turner and Edward McCray.

In keeping with King’s final wishes, a second community memorial and remembrance will be held in April 2015. Details have yet to be announced.

Audio and more

Listen to an audio recording of the celebration of life below. Click here to download the .mp3 file.

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Don King Tribute: Read more about Don King, his past work and occasional reprints of his past writings in our ongoing tribute.

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Posted by Matt Comer

Matt Comer is a staff writer for QNotes. He previously served as editor from October 2007 through August 2015.