"Oftentimes the most powerful form of activism is being who you are, wherever you are."
- David Seymour
The week of my sixteenth birthday I started my first job at the McDonald's restaurant in Effingham, Illinois. It was a good introduction into the workforce. I spent several years there and was promoted to a lower management position while still in high school.
I'll never forget the day a tall, handsome teenager walked into the restaurant and handed me his application with a noticeable dramatic flair. His spiked, blonde highlighted hair and personal style immediately set him apart from the norm in our small town. He gave me a broad smile and exited the restaurant. My curious eyes followed him until he was out of sight. It was my time to smile when I glanced at the name on the application. There, in a distinctive script was the name: Rollin A. Duckwitz III. With a name like that, I knew I would like him. I passed his application on to the hiring manger with a recommendation that they call him for an interview. A week later I walked into work and there stood Rollin wearing the ugly, polyester uniform in a hideous color that could only be described as very burnt orange.
He was enthusiastic, quick-witted, fun and some would say...flamboyant.
I was fascinated by him.
Rollin was the first gay person I knowingly met. You just knew he was gay. He made no effort to suppress himself or hide. He was authentic and unashamed. In 1983 this was very unusual for a teenage boy, especially in rural Illinois. I secretly admired his courage and confidence. After the initial whispers and gossip Rollin quickly endeared himself to everyone he worked with. He was enthusiastic, quick-witted, fun and some would say...flamboyant. I was fascinated by him. I wondered what his life was like. I wondered what it would be like to live so openly and unapologetically. I was afraid to get too close to Rollin for fear he would pick up on the secret that I was just like him. I'm sure he didn't need to get close to me to figure that out, but I didn't understand "gaydar" at that time in my life. I didn't have a crush on him, but I did have a deep interest in knowing more about the only gay person I knew in my small, sheltered, world.
High school graduation came and off to college I went and we never spoke again outside of one random encounter with him at a store while I was back home visiting my parents. That was the last time I ever saw Rollin. Since then I have often thought about him and wondered what became of him. He left an indelible mark on my life by fearlessly being himself, long before it was acceptable - or even safe - to do so. He has remained a source of inspiration to me all my life.
Over the last decade I've occasionally done an internet search for him but it never resulted in anything. This past week he once again popped into my mind and I decided to try again. This time, as I typed in his name the internet browser immediately prompted me to include the word "obituary" in my search. I fearfully clicked on it hoping to find it was someone else with the same unique name. But with sadness I read that Rollin Duckwitz passed away in January of 2015. The cause of death was not listed. The simple obituary listed his survivors and the many places he had worked over the years. It also stated that he would be cremated and there would be no services per his request.
He left an indelible mark on my life by fearlessly being himself, long before it was acceptable - or even safe - to do so.
I've been pondering this sad news all week. I have gone and looked at his obituary several times hoping to see something I didn't notice the last time I read it. I found his profile on Facebook and skimmed through the few public posts hoping to learn more about his life. I learned he liked cats, but nothing more. With regret I wondered why I hadn't searched for him on Facebook earlier.
I don't know what I was looking for. I guess I wanted to catch up on the last thirty years of silence. I think I wanted validation for the happy, fulfilled life I had created in my mind for Rollin. I imagined him moving to a progressive city out west somewhere. I imagined the wonderful man who he shared his life with in a community where he was loved and appreciated for the vivacious person he was. I imagined that one day we would unexpectedly connect again and I could share with him the influence that he was in my life and thank him for the empowerment he unknowingly gave to me. I imagined we would laugh about my closeted youth and fascination for him. I imagined he would smile and say "I always knew you were gay, Joel." We would laugh at my naivety. I Imagined I would introduce him to my husband and it would be the start of long distance friendship for years to come.
None of this can happen now. Rollin will never know the influence he has had in my life all these years. I don't know why he left his world at the young age of 48, but I deeply regret not being able to share with him my gratitude for the gift he gave me. That gift came in him fearlessly being his most authentic self at a time when few others were and only God knows how many, like myself, were silently watching from behind the closet door and finding hope and inspiration from his life.
I hope he knows this.
Thank you Rollin A. Duckwitz III. You will always be a hero to me.
Joel Barrett is a an LGBTQ Writer, Professional Speaker and Life Coach.
If you'd like to work towards fearlessly being your most authentic self, consider Joel as your life coach. Learn more at www.JoelSpeaksOut.com