A Turtle’s Tribute:
Rodger Mark Wilson, co-founder of the Turtle Creek Chorale, was a gay activist in the truest, best sense of the word. By all measures, he lived his life working to change the world into a more accepting, more open place for all.
Rodger was born on October 4, 1951 to William and Donna Wilson, growing up in the rugged West Texas landscape of Canyon. His involvement with music and drama began early on, as a child at First Presbyterian Church and then participating in the musical “Texas” in Palo Duro Canyon. Many of Rodger’s friends remember him speaking of his work in “Texas” to be the highlight of his early life.
When he left Canyon, he had been in over 300 performances and had been assistant choreographer. His master’s degree in children’s theater from Trinity University, in conjunction with the Dallas Theater Center, cemented his lifelong involvement with the arts (he received his bachelor’s from Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana in 1973). Throughout his life, he had the love and support of his parents; his mom was a regular at Chorale concerts for many years.
Rodger held many jobs, including theater teacher, antique dealer, landscape company owner and a health care educator. But throughout all of these positions, Rodger’s real career was changing peoples’ ideas on human worth and love. This Rodger did through his two great loves, music and faith.
As a regular Presbyterian church member throughout his early years, Rodger sensed the need for his denomination to open its arms to all. Shortly after his time in Indiana, Rodger become a founding member of Presbyterians for Lesbian/Gay Concerns (now known as More Light Presbyterians). The organization, dedicated “to work for the full participation of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people of faith in the life, ministry and witness of the Presbyterian Church (USA)”, worked to increase dialogue within the denomination. PLGC became a major force in the development of gay/lesbian ministries. His commitment to the cause brought him to the position of National Co-Moderator of the organization from 1982 to 1984. His perspective is unique and positive. In 1985 he was included in Called OUT, a collection of personal accounts of Gay Christians and their attempts and struggles to be a part of the whole Church. Within that book, Rodger said “Bethany was for, Jesus, a place of retreat and healing. [The church] had been such a place for me and others as well.”.
Locally, Rodger’s membership in Bethany Presbyterian Church led to a congregation that was affirming and welcoming to all. When Rodger came to Bethany in 1979, he presented the idea of becoming a “More Light” congregation, making it the only one in the Dallas (and Texas) area for many years. At Bethany, Rodger served as an elder, Director of Church Music, and many other leadership positions. He dedicated himself to the life of the congregation; current Pastor Todd Fenton noted that Rodger’s efforts kept the church going for a long period of almost 10 years when there was no full-time minister. “He kept the grounds for years and years, only letting go of the work when his health kept him from keeping it up,” said Todd.
Later, he became a facilitator of one of the longest running HIV support groups, founded at Bethany. He also was a founder of the Gay Religious Activities Coalition/Exchange in Dallas. It was during his time at Bethany Presbyterian (in 1982) that Rodger met James Nicholson, who would become his life partner. James once wrote “through Rodger’s love, his understanding and his connection to the Presbyterian Church I found my way back to sitting in a pew. It was not just that I attended, but I was active. I found people who loved me, wanted to be in my life and did not judge me. The people of Bethany may not have saved my life, but they had a major role in saving my soul.” This was the Church that Rodger always envisioned. Rodger once said “God’s table was wide and open for everyone, no matter who they are.” In his final move to New York City, Rodger joined Rutgers Presbyterian Church (also a “More Light” congregation) where he edited the newsletter and served as representative for Rutgers to the Presbytery of New York City. To the end of his life, his faith was a constant. According to his partner, “one of Rodger’s nurses said after his death that she was in the presence of one touched by God when she was with Rodger. She was not sure about gays and all that, but she knew he was special and she could see his love…”
Rodger had a beautiful tenor voice. From his involvement with music, he found another place that Dallas’ gay community could take pride. In 1980 Rodger and friend Don Essmiller casually came up with the idea of a gay men’s chorus. This discussion came just two years after the formation of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus. But early on, the Dallas chorus would be different. It would be foremost a musical group. The name, Turtle Creek Chorale, came from an area of town that could identify the chorus without it being a big issue. As Rodger once said, “Even when the G-word was hush-hush, it had never been a secret. It just wasn’t part of the name. Because we wanted people to like us for the music, and then maybe they’d change their minds.” Longtime TCC member Ed Young recalled that in the early days, there weren’t a lot of Chorale members that were really out. The Chorale was a place that people could be themselves and, as time went along, could take pride in who they were. Many members of TCC can trace their acceptance of identity to their involvement with the group. And that was the idea Rodger had from the beginning. Translated to the modern Mission Statement of the organization, TCC is about “enhancing the musical and cultural lives of its’ audiences….and to promote harmony and spread goodwill throughout the world.”
Although Rodger co-founded TCC, he never “laid claim” to the organization. As longtime TCC member Fred Moore recalled, “Rodger never felt like he had to lead the group. He was there to support it however he could but he felt that everyone had a role to play.” He was a constant behind the scenes. Fred also recalled a time when he was without a car. For two years, Rodger gave him a ride to TCC and he did the same for many others. When TCC had its 60’s concert, Rodger was one of the ones who committed to making bell-bottom trousers for all of the Chorale members. Costuming and set design, given his background, turned out to be one of his lasting legacies to the TCC.
TCC was a personal source of pride to Rodger. As the Chorale grew in size and stature, he saw the 1995 European tour as the culmination of a dream. Rodger said “It’s totally unexpected that our musical reputation would get us here.” At the time of the tour, Rodger had been dealing with AIDS for five years. In order to go on the tour, he even had two operations, including removal of his spleen. “When the trip to Europe was announced,” Rodger said “I called my doctor and said ‘OK, take it out’.” On the trip, Rodger bought a tiny rhinestone turtle pin, which he said symbolized his lifetime membership in TCC.
During the first Chorale season, Roger served as Vice President, Secretary, Member of Board of Directors, Choreography Coordinator and Tenor I Section Leader.
In 1998, still struggling with his illness, Rodger and his partner James moved to New York City. Rodger died on November 29, 1999, almost a decade after his diagnosis of AIDS. James remembers one of the last things Rodger said to him; “I made him better for being in his life.” But the truth is that Dallas’ gay community, and indeed the world, is a better place for this man’s life. At his memorial service at Bethany Presbyterian Church, denominational representatives from around the US and members of TCC came together, a visual and aural reminder his’ life’s work. Rodger’s vision of an accepting world and his tireless work to achieve it ensure a bright future for music, for faith, and for love.
From Sara Sprecher: Rodger was in part, responsible for Anne’s introduction to the TCC, TWCD and Tim Seelig. Rodger was a friend of mine, who was helping our community chorus in Corsicana with a concert. Shortly after this production, TCC went to GALA in Seattle, where you all came back determined that Dallas should have a women’s chorus, and the planning for that got underway. At the same time, our choir at St. John’s Episcopal in Corsicana was preparing Rutter’s Requiem for an All Saints’ presentation. Rodger had told me that TCC was singing the Requiem at an AIDS interfaith service at St. Matt’s Cathedral, and did we want to attend?? Of course Anne & I jumped at the chance to hear it. When your singing was over, Rodger came running up to me saying, “it’s finally here, you’ve got to come sing!” So, he introduced me and then Anne to Tim, and the rest is as they say…..
Rodger was seldom without a smile and loving word or embrace. My world is certainly richer for having known him and for the privilege of being his friend.
At the time of his death, Rodger was survived by his mother, Donna E. Wilson of Canyon, and sister, Judy Hubbard of Ralls.
This Turtle Sponsored by: Daniel Oberlander