Remembering a good friend
by Roberto Friedman
Earlier this fall, Out There was contacted by the Yale AIDS Memorial Project, an alumni-led initiative to honor and document the lives of alumni, faculty, and staff members from Yale University who have perished during the AIDS epidemic. The project is building a memorial website with profile pages for every Yale affiliate to die from the disease, estimated at this point to be approximately 500 people. The coordinator for the profile of Yale undergraduate Mark Dallas Butler (class of 1983) found OT by search engine because a few years ago, OT wrote a column in the Bay Area Reporter addressed as a letter to Mark, dearly missed. The piece OT wrote for the YAMP follows.
I met Mark the summer after what had been our freshman year in college, his at Yale and mine at Penn, in 1980. We were working as counselors at a summer program for gifted & talented high school students, a project funded by the Maryland State Department of Education. Students took college-level courses, lived in dorms and participated in extra-curricular activities at the University of Maryland, College Park, and we were there to help them through it.
Mark and I became fast friends. He was lively, intelligent, fun, charismatic. I was impressed by his openness – he had brought his boyfriend at Yale, Donald Suggs, home for Thanksgiving in his freshman year. Home was Chestertown on Maryland's generally conservative Eastern Shore, where his father was pastor at the Methodist (or Episcopalian?) church. Donald was an out gay African American Yalie. It took guts for Mark to present him at the Thanksgiving table as his boyfriend.
Most of the girls in the summer program were in love with Mark, as were many of the boys. They would tag along with him until he told them, in his perfect deadpan voice, "Go away." My memories of the escapades on our time off from duties tend to blur together. I don't remember which year it was we took off for the Eastern Shore, crashed at the James ', drove to his favorite secret places. I do remember being on the dock at Gratitude Landing in Rock Hall on the night of the Royal Wedding (Prince Charles and Lady Di), seeing a pair of swans swim together in the inky black waters, and Mark pointing out that in art, swans were a symbol of royalty. It was timely and too perfect.
We stayed good friends in the coming years. When Penn played football games at Yale, the university ran buses up to New Haven for the weekend, and I would go visit Mark at his college house, avoiding the football crowds. I was there for one of the first Yale gay dances. He wrote fabulous letters from his junior year abroad in Heidelberg – he worked at the Officers Club at the base nearby the university, and had tales to tell. By then I was teaching summer courses in the enrichment programs held at Washington College in Chestertown, Mark's old stomping grounds, so our paths tended to cross.
I was always impressed by Mark's dedication to his studies in art history. He was most interested in pre-modern art; contemporary art spoke little to him. After college he moved to New York and worked at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. I visited him there a few times, thrilled to be taken "backstage" into museum staff quarters. Mark showed me treasures in the storage rooms. I have a Polaroid of him wearing a delicate feathered hat from the museum's collection that had once belonged to the Queen of England. I'm sure he was not supposed to put it on, so for years I kept the photo hidden away, lest it jeopardize his career.
At that time he lived in Astoria, Queens, and had a coterie of close friends, including Katherine Gleason, who had been in Russian Studies at Yale. He encouraged me to move to NYC, told me he could get me a job in, say, the museum gift shop until I landed on my feet, but by that time I had moved to the Bay Area to do graduate work at Stanford, and knew I wanted California to be my home. We had fun times during my NYC visits: cocktail parties with young museum professionals in Midtown, bar-hopping downtown (Boy Bar, Uncle Charlie's, the Pyramid Club – this was the 1980s). Astoria, however, was hardly gay-friendly – on one visit, my then-boyfriend Doug Rose's car was vandalized, tires slashed, windshield and headlights smashed in, spray-painted, as a warning. It was pretty clearly a hate crime with the message: gays are not welcome here. But Mark said he'd never been gay-bashed; at most, some kids had once taunted him in Central Park: "Pee-wee Herman! Pee-wee Herman!" Because he was trim and dressed in a suit.
(Photo: Roberto Friedman)
Once he had the AIDS diagnosis, his decline in health was pretty swift. He died soon before the first cocktail therapy drugs became available. By this time he was in the Ph.D. program in art history at Penn, writing his dissertation on illuminated manuscripts. When he called to tell me about his health crisis, I was living on a gay commune in rural Southern Oregon. It took some doing, but I flew to Philadelphia to see him. I got us a room at the downtown Holiday Inn – we called it the Soviet Holiday Inn because it had all the charm of Stalinist architecture – and we spent a weekend catching up, telling stories, watching figure-skating on TV. I was surprised by how much sports trivia he knew, but realized that this mental capacity – the ability to memorize statistics, dates, names – was similar to the skills you needed in art history.
When I left him then I knew it would be the last time I'd see him. Writing this now brings up all the feelings of rage against an indifferent government and medical establishment, helplessness and sheer terror that we all experienced in those days. I'm grateful to the Yale AIDS Memorial Project for making sure that Mark will be remembered and his life honored. He meant a lot to a lot of people. I have no doubt that were he alive today, he would be a museum director. He had the intelligence, discipline, creative spark, courage, initiative, and charisma to go to the very top of his field. And he would have had legions of friends cheering him on.
As a sort of tragic coda, soon after submitting this recollection to Yale, Out There received word from a mutual friend that Donald Suggs, mentioned in the piece, had died of a heart attack on Oct. 7, in New York City. He was 51. After Yale, Suggs had gone on to a career in journalism, as a senior editor at the Village Voice, a contributor to The New York Times and the Advocate; advocacy and activism, as a former associate director of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, aka GLAAD, and program director at the AIDS organization Harlem United. Katherine Gleason, also mentioned above, wrote to us, "I was stunned to hear about Donald. I stumbled across the news on Facebook yesterday evening. Donald and I used to go roller-skating together. In, like, 1984."