Bill and Lupe

Just saying the names of these two men makes me smile. As much as anyone in my grown-up life, Bill Bearden and Guadalupe “Lupe” Alonzo have provided friendship and loyalty to me and to everyone who has crossed their paths as well as to each other. It’s an odd combination, the meeting and friendship between two very different people, one man who happens to be gay and one man, Lupe, much younger, who arrived in Texas 40 years ago without “papers.”

I was caught up in this friendship around the time Lupe married his wife, Alicia, in 1988. Bill had just purchased an established catering company in northeast San Antonio. The young Alonzo’s moved into a small house on the property and Lupe began working full-time for Bill.

But their story really started nine years earlier when Lupe and Bill first met. As Lupe tells it, “I was 11 years old. I was sitting on the stairs of my apartment building. Bill approached me and asked me if I wanted to work.” Lupe continued, “I was wondering what this man wanted me to do. He just showed me a hammer and a bunch of boards with nails. He told me to pull the nails out of the boards because he was going to recycle and reuse them. There were about 10 guys who started with me. I was the last one to stay that day and ever since then, I stayed with him. I’m nearly 50 years old and I’m still hanging around with Bill.”

Today, 40 years later, Lupe, husband, father, and grandfather, works hard at his day job with the City of San Antonio. At the end of his shift and during the weekend, he’s always available to lend a helping hand to members of his extended family and friends. Fifteen years ago, Bill and his long-time partner, Sammy Vera, moved to Florida. They live in Jacksonville, where Sammy works for Genesee and Wyoming Railroad Services.

Last week Lupe and I flew to this coastal city to see Bill. Although we had a lovely day together, we all knew it would probably be our last visit since Bill, now 68, was recently diagnosed with cancer of the pancreas that has spread to his liver and spine. In the words of his oncologist, Bill was told to “get his affairs in order.”

Who are these men who mean so much to me that I’m willing to take Lupe and fly to Jacksonville for the day so we three can have lunch together?

I’m sure many of us have stories about friends and acquaintances whose lives touch our families. The stories can be complex or simple and they may have little meaning for anyone outside our circle. But for those of us who experience these relationships, the effects can last a lifetime.

Think about this: A man, remodeling a bar in downtown San Antonio, needed help, so he did what many small, independent contractors do, he hired day labor. It was in an area of town where one would find workers without steady jobs, men standing around hoping to make a day’s wages. Most were adults; not that unusual, but Lupe was 11 years old with minimal English language skills.

What would make Bill ask Lupe to come along and work? I never asked Bill, although the story of their meeting has become lore in our families’ lives. Last week during our lunch in Jacksonville, for the first time, both Lupe and Bill confirmed the meeting and corroborated the story.

Bill, a man committed to his Christian faith, believes in helping others. That scenario pretty well sums up Bill in a few sentences. He spotted this young kid, sitting alone with nothing to do, obviously not able to take a chance on attending school, which meant he was probably in San Antonio without papers. Bill saw a young boy in need of work, and although there were plenty of adults available, he went out of his way to include Lupe in the project. I doubt there are very many contractors who would take on a young unskilled and untrained boy.

I asked Lupe if he knew Bill was gay. “I didn’t know even though he was remodeling a gay bar. I didn’t care. I just wanted to work. We did a few jobs together, then he bought a catering business and here I am.”

“Before I met and married Alicia, I continued to work for Bill when he was in town. Sometime’s he’d go away for a while but when Bill returned, he’d come and knock on my door and then he’d say, ‘Hey, I’m back; want to work?’”

So much has happened since that time.

When I met him in the mid-eighties, Bill’s catering business was set up in a large 19th century house, a relic from San Antonio’s earlier days when most immigrants to the area were German-speaking. Bill approached me with an offer to host and cater the party associated with our KPAC Artist of the Year fundraiser. (I was a member of the board of directors at KPAC, the local 24-hour classical music station and in charge of the event.) In exchange for hosting the party, Bill received print and on-air acknowledgement for his catering services, an important combination of publicity and promotion in the pre-internet days. It turned out well and Bill became a fixture at this small non-profit classical music operation, always available to host parties. But, it was more than that. For a struggling station, every penny was counted with volunteers providing most of the labor. Bill even helped with mailings. We could always count on him.

By 1990, the AIDS crisis was marching, unabated, through the gay community. Bill, never one to ignore a cause, was caught up in efforts to find financial help and bring awareness to this scourge of young men. First, he became active in the AIDS Memorial Quilt project and later organized and led the successful search for a San Antonio “safe house” . . . a place where anyone with terminal conditions, including women and children affected by AIDS would have a roof over their heads. Many of those afflicted with this awful condition had been disowned by their families; often, they had little or no medical insurance because they were unable to work. Few good stories came out of this period. After months of working as a volunteer to help HIV positive men, Bill signed on as chairman of the board of the local AIDS foundation. He and his fellow volunteers managed to secure a house, funding, and all manner of community and private support for the patients. He was a master at raising money and giving comfort. That’s a pretty rare combination. Eventually, these devastating wildfires were tempered as AIDS awareness changed behaviors and new pharmaceutical drugs were developed. Finally, for Bill, the inevitable happened: He got burned out. After several years in the position, he resigned from the board and returned to running a business, only this time it was a bar catering to gay men.

That endeavor ended when Sammy, his partner, was offered a transfer. It seemed like a good time to start fresh so they moved to Boynton Beach on Florida’s east coast. In typical fashion, Bill found a job selling mattresses — but not just any mattresses. These were higher-than-high-end mattresses built and sold by a family-owned company. Bill, one of the world’s great salesmen, soon became top seller and eventually, manager of the shop in West Palm Beach. He was having a ball.

Eight years ago, Sammy received another promotion requiring him to move to Jacksonville. They bought a house in the suburbs. Like so many other homeowners in the region, their garden flourished thanks to the almost-never-ending growing season. Lush plants, brilliant flowers, a manicured lawn and the mother of all vegetable plots behind the house keep Bill busy, or at least it did until this April, when he started experiencing abdominal pain accompanied by significant weight loss. Tests, more tests, meetings with oncologists, oncologic surgeons, and finally, for the definitive answer delivered the morning of our arrival, Bill’s physician confirmed what they already knew. Instead of surgery, Bill would start a regimen of chemotherapy to hopefully diminish the size of the tumor and slow its spread. In spite of his reluctance, his doctor insisted he could have as much pain medication as he needed.

Lupe’s story followed a different path. He and his wife Alicia had two sons and a daughter, all grown. One son is married and has three children. Lupe’s daughter, the light of his life, is also married and rising through the ranks as a corpsman in the U.S. Navy.

After Bill sold his catering business, Lupe found work with the City of San Antonio in the Solid Waste Management division. At about the same time, in 1990, President Ronald Reagan signed a historic amnesty law for illegal immigrants, giving Lupe an opportunity for his green card. As soon as he was eligible he took his citizenship test. Today, Guadalupe Alonzo is a loyal American. Standing at Lupe’s side as he was sworn in was Bill, who says it was his “proudest moment.”

It is Lupe’s character that makes him stand out. He never says no to anyone in need. (Don’t misunderstand; no one takes advantage of this man.) He is strong, determined, honest to a fault, a success story for those who know him and whose lives he touches.

Since Lupe never attended school, he could not read and write either English or Spanish. Finally, at the age of 40, he learned to read and write in both languages. Lupe is a problem solver. I always think if Lupe had had the benefits of an education he would have become an engineer. He is precise, smart, and determined to make things work properly. Lupe is also polite, a true gentleman. He and Alicia raised their children with care and love, all the while maintaining important standards of behavior.

I asked Lupe where he had learned to complete a project, to lead a crew and to live a life of meaning. Beyond his practical skills and accomplishments, Lupe understands the importance of treating people fairly; he shows others by doing. He asks no one to do something he wouldn’t tackle. In his work with the city, Lupe organizes, directs and leads the crews that bring brush and refuse from other parts of the city. To dispose of this mountain of mess, the job requires planning and careful execution. He’s a good commander, though his crew follows him into battle with heavy mechanized equipment, dump trucks and the never-ending parade of refuse produced by the rest of us.

Time for the important question. I asked Lupe how he had learned these skills.

With Lupe, the answer is always the same: “Bill taught me. He showed me how to handle tools, to think through and finish a project. Almost as important, he taught me how to treat people. I was too impatient; I blamed others when things went wrong instead of giving them time to do a better job. It was Bill.”

Two such different men, yet they have so much in common.

Wouldn’t it be nice to mark your time on earth knowing that because of your investment in those around you, your willingness to help others no matter how difficult the situation, that you’ve provided the guidance for someone to grow into a thoughtful, caring man who has passed those skills and beliefs onto his children and all those who know him? Sometimes, it’s a difficult path. Fortunately, for those who know him, we can follow Bill’s example.

I should hope to leave such a legacy.