Each June since 1993, the Memphis gay community has held a gay pride parade. But the parade was almost a no-go in 2004 when Memphis Pride, the group that organized the annual celebration, dissolved.
That's when Gary Wilkerson stepped in. In only six weeks, Wilkerson managed to put together a new group, Mid-South Pride, and organized a successful parade down Cooper Street.
Wilkerson, 45, died September 28th at Saint Francis Hospital after suffering a series of strokes.
"He wasn't feeling well in May, but he refused to go to the doctor because he didn't want it to interfere with his commitments to this year's Pride event," says Kent Hamson, Wilkerson's partner of eight years. "He was afraid he'd be put in the hospital and have to miss Pride."
Such commitment was typical of Wilkerson. Elizabeth Wilkerson, Gary's mother, says he began donating all his extra money to the Make-a-Wish Foundation when he was a teenager.
He even cancelled his post-high school graduation plans to help raise his younger brother and sister after his father died in 1979.
"We made it all those years, and we didn't lose a thing. That's because Gary stepped in and took over. He loved his family," Elizabeth Wilkerson says.
Gary and his mother began working with HIV/AIDS victims through the Aid to End AIDS Committee (now known as Friends for Life) in the 1980s.
"He and his mother cared for close to a thousand people who had no one else to take care of them," Hamson says. "He would literally hold these people in his arms when they died."
Wilkerson worked as a computer technician and was an active member of Holy Trinity Community Church. It was through his connection with his church that he ended up spearheading Mid-South Pride.
"He'd been calling Memphis Pride [in 2004] to make sure Holy Trinity could get booth space [at the Pride festival]," Hamson says. "When he didn't get a response, he started talking to other people, and they'd all had the same experience. Somebody suggested starting a new organization, and Gary said he was willing to do it."
Wilkerson became president, and a board of directors was formed. In a matter of weeks, they had a parade permit, street closure, and insurance for the event.
"Gary is one of the main reasons that Mid-South Pride has such a good relationship with the police department, the park commission, and the permit bureaus," says Vincent Astor, a member of the group's board.
Astor says they are creating a 100-foot flag to be carried in next year's Pride parade in Wilkerson's honor.
"Gary was very passionate about people having the same rights as everybody else," says board member Edie Love. "And he was so outgoing. He could talk to anybody. He seemed fearless to me."