A few weeks ago, I met a man named Dr. William Webster. At 92, he’s one of the oldest living residents in Hamburg, NY. How do I know that? Because I recently wrote all of the content for Hamburg’s bicentennial book. The book is going to be handed out at numerous 2012 events, celebrating the town’s 200-year anniversary. When I started it, I had no idea that this assignment would connect me with one of the most heart-warming individuals I have ever met in my life.
For one of the articles included in the book, I was asked to interview one of the oldest living residents in town. I was given Dr. Webster’s name and number, so I called him up and scheduled the interview. The interview took place at the house he’s lived in since the 1970’s. He son, a talented carpenter, built it for him with his own two hands.
We sat down on the back porch overlooking Eighteen Mile Creek. Dr. Webster sat across from me while I asked him questions about living in Hamburg and the changes he has witnessed. Once the interview was over, I closed my laptop. But Dr. Webster kept talking. He told me story after story and I listened intently. He was engaging, sincere and honest. I learned many wonderful things about him, like the fact that he’s a recovering alcoholic and he’s been sober for years. Yet, he still attends AA meetings because he loves helping others. He also loves to play the piano, and he and his wife, Betty, used to have singalongs at their house. His still hosts singalongs to this day, but at a local restaurant because the crowd has grown to 100-plus.
“I hope I’m not talking too much,” he said at one point. “Betty says I talk too much.”
Betty was out puttering in the garden with her cane during our conversation. She was covered from head to toe with mud and grass. At 95, she had incredible stamina though her hearing wasn’t so good. When Dr. Webster introduced me to her, she looked up at me and said, “Hi there Suzy.”
I told Dr. Webster that I didn’t mind listening to him. In fact, I admitted that I could sit there all day if I had the time. He smiled.
“You know,” he started, looking off at the creek. “I’ll tell you something else. It’s got nothing to do with history or anything like that. It has to do with prejudice.”
“Oh?” I said, sitting up in my chair.
“See, when I grew up I had prejudice against Italians.”
“Uh oh,” I laughed. “I’m Italian.”
“Well, the thing is, I grew up on a farm in rural New York. My mother told me all these things about Italians — they were dirty, lazy, etc. And we had Italians who worked on our farm. They came in on trucks, worked the farm and left. So, I had all these prejudices. But then I went to Cornell and I met some Italians. And they weren’t what I thought. Then I was in the War, and a good buddy of mine was Italian. I realized I had been wrong for so many years. And it kept going. All my prejudices went away with the more people I met. Jews, blacks, etc.”
“Wow,” I said, genuinely.
“Then this whole gay marriage thing happens.”
Here’s where I took pause. I wasn’t sure what he was about to say, but considering his previous comments I was hoping for the best.
“I don’t know what the big deal is,” he laughed. “I don’t know what everyone is so upset about. Gay people are just like us. And you know, it’s just another prejudice. When I was a pediatrician back in the 50’s, a young couple came to me about their son. They said he was acting very feminine and they didn’t know what to do about it. I didn’t know what to tell them, either. Back then, they didn’t teach you those kinds of things in medical school. So I told them to take him to a psychiatrist. You know what the psychiatrist told them? He told them to let their son be and support him. That was the best thing they could have done. I saw the boy again as an adult and he’s doing so well. I’m so thankful that it turned out that way.”
“I’m happy to hear you say that,” I told him. “Because I’m gay.”
His face lit up. “You are? Good for you! Are you married?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Wonderful!” he exclaimed. “I’d love to meet your partner.”
“She would enjoy meeting you, too.”
“You know,” he continued. “I want to help be an advocate for gay people. I want them to know that I support them.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. So I told him how I work with LGBT youth and he applauded my efforts. After our conversation, Dr. Webster brought me inside his home to show me around. He showed me some old photos and faded newspaper clippings . I could tell that he sincerely enjoyed my company. Before I left, I told him that I’d like to come back and visit him again.
“Would you?” he asked. “I’d really like that.”
“Of course,” I said. And I meant it.
As I shook his hand, he turned to Betty (who had still been working in the yard all of this time) and said, “Lyndsey’s going to come back and visit us again. Isn’t that nice?”
She nodded, waved her cane eagerly at me, and yelled, “Bye Suzy!”