She was not quite 4 when her daddy died.
Deep in the recesses of her memory, Jessica Waddell Lewinstein, now 30, can still hear his voice. It was a voice that held contrasts: deep but soft, considered but sprinkled with mischief, nuanced with sadness and lilting with joy.
She remembers only snippets of conversations. Like the time he sought her advice on the best color for a car he hoped to buy.
"I suggested pink," Jessica says, with a laugh. "And he suggested I maybe have another suggestion."
Or the way he patiently worked with her on her pronunciation. When she went to visit him, she talked about the "hop-ital," as if it were a palace for bunnies. Tom Waddell would smile and say, "Darling, it's 'hoss-pital."
He was 49 and dying of AIDS. She was there almost to the end in 1987, when that voice uttered its final words: "Well, this should be interesting."
If somehow that voice could be summoned once again, Jessica thinks it would be filled with wonder. As Gay Games 9 gets underway this week in Ohio, the sports landscape for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community has been radically transformed. In 2014, we have seen Jason Collins donning his No. 98 uniform and setting jarring picks on the NBA hardwood. We have seen Michael Sam burst into tears after getting the call for the NFL draft. In western Massachusetts, just up the road from where Waddell was once the best college athlete in the area, UMass' Derrick Gordon became the first male Division I college basketball player to come out, tweeting, "This is the happiest I have ever been in my 22 Years of living...No more HIDING!!!"
"These are amazing milestones," says Jessica, a public relations manager for a video game company in California. "This is exactly what he was fighting for."
Indeed, the growing acceptance of LGBT athletes is demonstrated most powerfully by the setting for this quadrennial celebration of sports and culture. Other Gay Games have been staged in more rarefied urban settings from San Francisco to Sydney; from Chicago to Cologne, Germany; from New York to Amsterdam. Gay Games 10 in 2018 will take place in Paris.
But here in the summer of 2014, some 8,000 athletes from 48 states and 51 countries are flocking to the rust-belt cities of northeast Ohio, Cleveland and Akron, middle America, swing state, site of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the next Republican National Convention. And oh yeah, the hometown and home court once again of LeBron James.
Here, the King is on his throne. The queens, too.
According to his daughter, Waddell would be beaming. "He wanted people to be able to be free, to come out and be themselves, and be able to play sports," she says. "I think he would be blown away to see what has happened."
Just as many would be surprised to learn of how Waddell wound up being the father of both Jessica and the Gay Games.
In many ways, Waddell was a paragon of traditional masculinity. He was a superior athlete, good enough to take sixth in the world in the decathlon in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. He was a paratrooper in the Army. He was a doctor with a dazzling sense of adventure -- working in Africa on patients with tropical diseases and becoming the physician for the Saudi Arabian Olympic team in 1976.
Beneath his reddish-blond hair and gentle grin, he had a physique that commanded attention. Once when he was training for the Olympics, Waddell peeled off his shirt to change before a workout and his old college track coach Vern Cox marveled, "By God, he got what I ordered!"
Modest but charismatic, unfailingly polite but adventurous sometimes to the point of recklessness, he was irresistible to women. Back at a time when such things mattered, he was a marvelous dancer. Twice he became engaged.
Then, in 1976, he came out as publicly as possible -- in People magazine.
"I believed that I wasn't sick," he said in the story, "that my feelings were quite normal if not accepted by most of society. I decided that was their hang-up and not mine."
Growing up in a strict Catholic family in New Jersey, he struggled to align his internal world with external expectations. He was Tom Flubacher back then, and his German heritage was a source of shame for a child born in 1937, coming into his consciousness as World War II raged. He was aware from his young teenage years of his attraction to men, but he tamped this down, stuffed it in the back of the closet and dead-bolted it shut. This was America of the 1950s. The messages were clear. Be a man. Don't cry. Sensitivity equals weakness.
"I really felt like I was the only homosexual in my entire high school," Waddell would later say in a TV interview. "I thought I was the only homosexual in the world."
His outlet was sports, the great proving ground of American masculinity. It was free and raw and physical -- a place where Tom could be, in one sense, himself. Big and strong, fast and coordinated, he was the first player picked on the playground. Sure, those moments when captains chose sides could be a crucible, annihilating self-esteem for those with lesser skills. But Tom could play, so he was, long before the term gained cultural cachet, "the man."
His abilities earned him a scholarship to Springfield College. This too was a bastion of manhood: an old YMCA school, birthplace of basketball, factory of physical education teachers, cradle of coaches from James Naismith and Amos Alonzo Stagg on down. That was the game plan when Tom Flubacher arrived in the fall of 1955.
Even at Springfield, Tom's abilities stood out. Granted, this was an era before specialization when the multisport athlete was not uncommon, but his particular three-sport combination was startling: football, track and field, and gymnastics. He was a standout across the board. Mimi Murray, a professor of sports psychology at Springfield and former varsity coach as well as a member of the class of 1961, is one of many who consider him the single greatest athlete in the school's history.
In football, his spectacular catch to spark a 1957 upset over UConn remains the stuff of legend for many of his classmates. Says Tom Johnson, "He caught a touchdown in the end zone with two guys hanging all over him -- with one hand! That was the way he was."
In track and field, he was a record-breaking dervish, soaring over high jump bars that topped his 6-foot-2 frame, launching the javelin into the heavens, sprinting to the tape well ahead of the pack. Once he came within a point of outscoring the entire Amherst College team in a dual meet.
Back then, though, his greatest athletic passion was gymnastics. It was a sport with a rich heritage at the school (Naismith and Stagg also participated). Not only was there a team that could compete at a high level nationally but there was also an exhibition squad, a precursor to Cirque du Soleil that traveled throughout the Northeast on weekends as the school's top showcase.
Tom had learned about gymnastics and dance back in New Jersey from neighbors Gene and Hazel Waddell, former vaudevillians who took Tom in as his own family fractured in acrimonious divorce. Gene had been part of The Three Jacksons, famed for a human gymnastic triangle in 1935 in which he did a headstand on a friend's forearms perched on a ledge on the 86th floor of the Empire State Building. (It still makes for a dazzling YouTube video almost eight decades later.)
When he was at Springfield, Tom changed his last name to Waddell in tribute to loving adults who had been there for him at a particularly rough time. But he maintained a big-tent policy when it came to defining family. Ann Briley, a psychiatrist in Boston and a former girlfriend of Waddell's at Springfield, remembers one homecoming when he had three sets of parents on campus: the Waddells and both of his biological parents with their new spouses. Even then, Tom was not one to buy into convention or accept the definitions of others about who he was or could be.
For all his confidence and abundant charisma, Waddell was waging an inner battle with crystal-clear cultural expectations that contradicted his heart. If sports were the raw place where he could feel free, they were also his cover, the shield to the real.
"I think a lot of men go into athletics for the same reason I did -- a need to prove their maleness," Waddell told Dick Schaap, who wrote the posthumous biography "Gay Olympian" in 1996. "They're fighting what they perceive to be feminine qualities -- sensitivity, perhaps ... so they have to establish a sense of masculinity."
Sports at Springfield College also introduced him to tragedy for the first time. One day in his junior year, he went early to gymnastics practice with Don Marshman, a fellow standout who was the class president, as well as Tom's close friend and former roommate. Marshman was working on a routine on the flying rings. On a backswing, he lost control and soared past the landing area, slamming his head on the floor with a sickening crack. Horrified, Tom raced over and tried to comfort his friend. Hours later, the news came through that Marshman had died in the hospital.
According to Briley, "Tom was absolutely bereft."
Jack Savoia, a good friend and fellow track and field co-captain, said, "He was heartbroken. ... His purpose changed."
Almost immediately, Waddell shifted his major from physical education to pre-med. That had been Marshman's focus. Waddell decided to devote his life to healing.
Also evolving at the time was Waddell's sexuality. Like others of his generation, he had to keep the lid on the hormonal blender. He dated women who lived in single-sex dorms, showing up during visiting hours and observing the rules of "doors open, feet on the floor." He was polite and charming, dashingly handsome, but safe.
"He was kind. He was smart. He was an incredible athlete," Briley remembers. The two went to the junior prom together. "Oh, it was wonderful," she recalled. "He was wonderful to be with. He had a great sense of humor."
Briley, who years later came out as a lesbian, says the collective repression and denial -- even to oneself -- was just a part of the times. "You could not be gay and go anywhere," she said. "I would never have gotten into medical school, residencies, anything. It was just the culture."
Waddell navigated those expectations to the best of his ability, sports allowing him to pass again and again. In the summer of 1959, it was his athletic ability, as much as anything, that got him hired to work as a counselor at a camp in the Berkshires. There he met Enge Menaker, a 63-year-old who helped run the companion family camp. Menaker was a cultural fountain. He spoke several languages, played music for hours, and loved art, history and conversation. He opened up Waddell to a whole new way of being. Part of that was giving him permission for once to love a man.
It was all tucked away from public view and private judgment. Waddell knew it would seem incomprehensible to most people and scandalous to many, but to him the relationship with this gentle man three times his age was a kind of deliverance.
If the full swirl of America in the 1960s could be made incarnate, if all the jarring impulses of this transformative decade could be molded into a person, Tom Waddell would be the one.
He was at times the vision of uniformed authority: donning the white lab coat in the hospital or deploying the parachute over his fatigues high above Fort Benning.
Other glimpses would show him behind bars in a Selma jail getting lectured on the inferiority of black people by Sheriff Jim Clark or crafting letters to a military superior about his moral opposition to the war in Vietnam.
Amid the queasy turbulence of 1968, the year of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy and the election of Richard Nixon, Waddell also was an Olympic athlete of near Wheaties-box caliber in the decathlon.
In many ways, his presence on that track was remarkable. He had spent much of the decade with other intensive commitments to his medical and military training. Almost deployed to Vietnam and almost court-martialed for his resistance, Waddell had managed to persuade the Army to use his skills in other ways. First, he was allowed to teach a global medicine course at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, D.C., then to become one of the soldier-athletes sent to train for the Olympics under a "welfare, recreation and morale" order.
He was the longest of long shots to make the Olympic team. He would be just shy of his 31st birthday when the Games began, at least five years older than all seven of the U.S. gold medalists in the decathlon to that point (beginning with 24-year-old Jim Thorpe in 1912). Becoming the "world's greatest athlete" -- the unofficial title bestowed upon the Olympic decathlon champion -- had been, historically, a younger man's game. But Waddell made one of the top three scores in the trials, and then, to his wonderment, there he was, marching into Estadio Olimpico Universitario, alongside people such as George Foreman and Bob Beamon and his roommate, who at age 21 already had been the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year: Jim Ryun.
"I was down in the middle of that stadium, and I thought my heart was going to burst," Waddell later said. "I was so overjoyed to be on that field."
To Waddell, the symbolism of the Games spoke to his highest ideals: the five interlocking rings, the parade of nations, the torch being lit. In some ways, this felt like sports at its most pure. It brought people of the world together.
Over two days, Waddell sprinted and soared, leaped and launched, hurdled and heaved, setting five personal bests in the 10 events and amassing his career-best score of 7,720 points. It was good enough for sixth place among the 33 competitors. Only one American, Bill Toomey, did better, winning the gold medal.
In a far simpler media world, Waddell's performance warranted minimal notice. In the public eye, his appearance in the Olympics was far more notable for his outspoken support of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the 200-meter gold and bronze medalists who held gloved fists aloft on the medal stand during the national anthem.
In a story printed in The Washington Post, Waddell said that he "absolutely agreed" with Smith and Carlos, that he was "pleased with their protest." He even said their actions might help the image of the U.S. overseas, one that, amid the growing outcry over the war in Vietnam, he described as "so bad it can't get any worse."
As the late '60s spilled into the '70s, Woodstock giving way to Watergate, Waddell continued to live an adventurous life. He traveled to Africa and South America on goodwill track and field tours with Toomey. The gold medalist was amazed by Waddell's indefatigable energy.
"Many days, after I was long gone and tired, the macho Olympic champion," Toomey told Schaap in a 1987 Sports Illustrated story, "Tom would go to a local hospital and work all night on patients with tropical diseases."
At another point, Toomey described Waddell as "the world's most eclectic person."
Waddell worked for years as a medical consultant for Whittaker Corp., enjoying the opulence of the Saudi royal family in Riyadh. When he wasn't in the Middle East, he settled in San Francisco. There, amid the hub of American gay life, Waddell gained the conviction to leave the closet once and for all. Like so many in the city, he embraced the bacchanal fully, its drug use and promiscuity, before finding what he hoped was true and lasting love with Charles Deaton, a 50-year-old former CIA operative.
In October 1976, just three months after the celebration of the U.S. bicentennial and the Summer Olympics in Montreal, readers of that most American of publications, People, found the two men featured in the "Couples" section. The three-page article began with words from Waddell:
"There is a need for alternative models for gay people growing up. If I had known that there were other gay people who lived normal lives, I would not have gone through so much anguish. I wouldn't have had to pretend to be like everyone else."
Gay athletes were not completely unknown at that point -- former NFL running back Dave Kopay had come out the year before -- but this announcement was thousands of miles ahead of the cultural curve. It came as a shock to many people who had known Waddell years before.
Former classmate Tom Johnson recalled that the People piece forced a reckoning that was revolutionary for people of his generation: "It was a total revelation," Johnson recalled. "I came from a very, very strict household. We had no idea about homosexuality. That was taboo." He said that knowing Waddell as a friend left him only one choice: "You better readjust your thinking. That, for me, was a total 180. I became far more cognizant of gay people, more understanding of them. That was Tom."
Schaap began "Gay Olympian" with the famous A.E. Housman poem "To an Athlete Dying Young." That phenomenon, of course, always tears apart our hopes. The deaths of people from Lou Gehrig to Roberto Clemente to Pat Tillman are no more tragic than the deaths of non-athletes, but they give us a shuddering reminder of how little we can control.
Having trained in medicine, Waddell harbored no illusions of immortality. But those who knew the man found him, if not larger than life, just about as large as life could contain: effervescent, fearless, deep in his heart.
In 1982, the year when AIDS got its name, when Waddell was still a vibrantly healthy man of 44, he became, metaphorically, the old man in the Talmud, planting a fig tree. Planting, in fact, two fig trees.
The first was what has come to be known as the Gay Games.
It started out as the Gay Olympic Games. This was Waddell's grand vision, the confluence of all the swirling currents in his life. Athletics had always been his path to personal liberation and to connection with others. He didn't just play sports; he believed in them. To Waddell, they represented, at their most pure, the great opening of a door.
Of course, for many gay people sports had meant a door slamming shut.
Waddell wanted to create an athletic event predicated on inclusion. It would be open to all people: gay and straight, all races, all nationalities, all religions, even all levels of ability. As long as you believed in the spirit of the Games, it didn't really matter whether you were a recreational athlete or an Olympic athlete.
If anything, the Games were modeled after what Waddell considered to be the true principles of the Olympics: equality, fairness, human dignity.
Except that the U.S. Olympic Committee didn't see it that way. Just 19 days before the games were to begin, the USOC persuaded a federal court to issue an injunction prohibiting Waddell and his group, San Francisco Arts & Athletics, from using the word "Olympic" because of copyright infringement. The USOC said it had nothing to do with homosexuality or any sort of personal agenda.
Waddell was incredulous and wounded to the core. He pointed out that in the past there had been no opposition to multiple other uses of the term (e.g., the Special Olympics). In a letter to the USOC he signed with three others who had worn the uniform of Team USA in the Olympics, Waddell decried the action as "a glaring hypocrisy and a grave violation of the ideals you are supposed to safeguard and promote."
With no legal recourse, Waddell and the SFAA scrambled to remove the offending word from a slew of merchandise and promotional material.
The hastily rechristened Gay Games played out nevertheless in the summer of 1982 with some 1,300 athletes from 12 countries participating. In one of the ancient, classic track and field events, Waddell swung his muscular right arm across his chest, whirled with a dancer's grace and uncorked a discus into the moist San Francisco air, earning the gold medal.
The Gay Games also led directly to Waddell's other legacy -- the birth of his daughter, Jessica.
In planning the Games, Waddell was determined not just to combat stereotypes but to bridge gaps between people -- not least of all the chasm between gay men and lesbians. He knew there was strength in unity, and he actively sought out the support of the San Francisco lesbian community. That led him to Sara Lewinstein, an elite bowler and softball player, a strong-minded but soft-hearted daughter of Holocaust survivors from Warsaw, Poland.
Lewinstein admits she was leery of Waddell as he began to spell out his vision for the Games. "I had a whole different outlook on gay men until I met him," she said recently. "Meeting Tom and [hearing] his philosophy really opened up my eyes. ... That's the way we wanted the world to be."
She was charmed by his wicked sense of humor. When her parents met him, he regaled them with his accounts of the Jewish doctors in his long-ago residency in a New York hospital. Here he was, a man of German-American extraction talking to people whose mothers had perished in the Holocaust, and, according to Lewinstein, "He would put on a Jewish accent. He sounded Yiddish. He would imitate the people in the hospital. He would have my mother and my stepdad laughing so hard. They loved him."
Lewinstein was absolutely certain of being a lifelong lesbian. She also had a yearning to have a baby -- something then quite rare in the gay community. Weeks later, as Waddell drove over the Golden Gate Bridge, she asked him how he felt about children. He just about burst into tears. After the Gay Games, they went away and, in the old-fashioned way, conceived a child.
Beginning in January 1983 and ending in May 1987 -- a period running from about two months after Lewinstein got pregnant until about two months before his own death -- Waddell kept a journal for Jessica. More than 60 entries are interspersed throughout "Gay Olympian." Taken together, they make for a poignant document of an astonishingly bittersweet time.
His delight in his daughter comes through again and again. "I put my hand on Mom's bare belly today. ... Here you are! You are so beautiful! ... Today you shone like the brightest little star. All day -- so animated, so alive, so joyful. ... You dance so effortlessly, and you are so delicate and charming and bright as a precious stone. You are a miracle to me, my sweet darling."
At times, he speaks to his dreams for his daughter: "I would hope that you would view your life as an opportunity to make the world a better place for future generations."
He muses on the state of homosexuality in America in 1983: "Being openly gay at this particular time is very exciting, but it also means there are many doors to open and new paths to follow. We are all struggling to be understood by the dominant society."
He shares the stress that comes from the vise grip of the USOC lawsuit ("a terrible anxiety") and the strain of carving out a pioneering path as a gay man and a lesbian trying to raise a child ("what an unusual situation we have put you in").
He celebrates Jess' spark but adds a cautionary note ("I like your inquisitiveness, and yet there must be constraints to let you know that total freedom can be dangerous if not lethal").
The journal shows Waddell's strong convictions, but also his doubts and insecurities, his sadness about romantic relationships and his acutely sensitive, easily wounded side. It is most poignant in its depiction of the dark cloud of AIDS descending over San Francisco. He muses about friends who are dying as, all around the city, dozens, then hundreds, then thousands of vibrant men fell prey to the ravages of this modern plague. It was a harrowing and undignified demise. Often it was accompanied by a chilling isolation from family members and a judgment from the so-called moral majority, who claimed that this was God's punishment, that these heathens were getting what they deserved.
Waddell had a creeping sense of the inevitability of his own diagnosis. Back East in January 1985 to take care of two old men dying of other causes -- his father, Elmer Flubacher, and his first lover, Enge Menaker -- Waddell wrote to Jessica, "... tonight, while I was brushing my teeth, I noticed some white patches on my tongue. Sweetheart, I hope it's nothing, but there is the possibility that this is an early sign of AIDS."
By the next summer, as Gay Games 2 came to a now-besieged San Francisco, Waddell knew his days were numbered. He checked himself out of the hospital and marched in the opening ceremonies holding hands with Lewinstein and Jessica (who, to his overwhelming relief, did not have AIDS). Waddell delivered a stirring opening address as part of the Games, which attracted some 3,500 athletes from 17 countries. In one final feat of athletic strength, he managed to win the gold medal in the javelin.
Within a year, he was gone.
Jessica Waddell Lewinstein, raised primarily by her mother, recalls her father with particular fondness. "He left quite a legacy," she said in a recent conversation. "He's always had quite a large presence in my life, quite a large influence. I've always looked up to him. I've always been proud of him."
Jessica has grown up with the Gay Games. In 1990, at age 7, she hid shyly behind her mother's legs as Lewinstein addressed the opening ceremonies in Vancouver, British Columbia. Four years later in New York, Jessica spoke at the opening ceremonies, sharing a poem she wrote called "I Remember." Speaking before a huge crowd at Columbia University, she recounted the way her father used to clap when she played the piano, or the way her preschool classmates would clamor to see Waddell's trick of "taking off his thumb." In years to come, she would watch video of her dad on the big screen and gain a greater sense of why his vision and courage were so important to so many people.
"I owe a lot to the Gay Games," she said. "They are the reason for my existence, to be honest."
She and her mom will be on hand in Cleveland for Gay Games 9: a celebration that includes everything from power lifting to pink flamingos, filled with music and art and stand-up comedy, a health conference juxtaposed to the National Hamburger Festival, competitions in everything from rowing to rodeo, from darts to the decathlon.
Jessica knows there is still a ways to go. Still, there are politicians advocating "reparative therapy" for gays. Still, there are NFL coaches getting reprimanded for homophobic comments. Still, there is a stream of Twitter vitriol about the "gay agenda" when Sam wins an award for courage at The ESPYS. But Waddell's "bright as a precious stone" daughter sees the movement forward as inexorable at this point, with the Gay Games playing a major role. She views it as a gift from her dad that keeps on giving.
And it's not the only one.
One day at work a couple of years ago, Jessica got a manila envelope with four cassette tapes in the mail from a woman she didn't know. In the accompanying letter, the woman explained that she had been friends with former housemates of Waddell's. She said the tapes were intended for Jessica, and she apologized for not sending them much sooner.
Cassette tapes? For a young woman, these might as well have been an abacus or bottles of Wite-Out.
She went to "the only location I know of where there is a cassette tape player." That would be her mother's house in Oakland, California. No one was home. Jessica popped the first tape in, hit the play button, lay down on the floor and shut her eyes.
"It was just an amazing thing," she said.
She heard her dad talking about her birth, about being gay, about AIDS, about trying to create a world of greater understanding and compassion. She heard him getting choked up about the loss of his own father, reveling in Jessica's cuteness, offering little snippets of advice or jokes. She sensed a kinship with his humor, what her mom lovingly calls her "sassiness."
"It was quite an experience," she said. "It almost added a layer for myself in understanding who I was."
At times, she heard the gibberish of a toddler on the tape. "I can't say it was very enlightening as to my state of mind at the time," she said with a laugh, "but I definitely heard my voice, and if it's not too much to say about yourself, I sounded adorable."
Mostly, though, she listened to the voice of a man she barely knew yet knows so well. It was her dad, Dr. Tom Waddell, so deep in his heart, taking his daughter ever deeper into hers.