Remembering a Seattle Gay community pillar
by James Whitely -
SGN Staff Writer
James 'Jim' Feigley was a true community patriarch who didn't much like the limelight. He was the kind of man who was behind the scenes making things happen, and he no doubt played a large part in creating what we know today as Gay Seattle. Jim passed away on Wednesday, January 2, at 5:14 p.m. from cardiopulmonary failure. He had been fighting Parkinson's disease for the last eight years of his life.
I met up with Jim's three adopted sons - Joe Martin, Steven Smith, and David Munden - to learn the story about this man. The three were on their way to meet with Jim's brother, John, and as we sat and chatted for a too-short hour, the three of them revealed to me the story of a father, an activist, and, in many ways, a hero.
It's clear that Jim united these three men - truly, they are brothers. And while Jim has many important legacies, from owning and operating several bars, to fundraising, to fight-ing police repression, it's quite clear that these three trump it all.
'He met us each at different times,' said Steven.
Steven Smith was 12 when he met Jim.
'My mother died when I was five. I was given to my godparents, they were in their 60s,' Steven told SGN. 'I used to hang out at what's now City Market. Every night he'd walk by and I'd bum cigarettes and quarters from him to play video games. One night he came by and I was beat up,' said Steven. 'So he took me home and took me to my godparents' the next morning, to see what kind of environment I was from.'
'I had great foster parents,' said Steven, '[but] I was with people who were too old to handle me.'
So, when Steven was 13, Jim adopted him, taking legal custody.
'We met in 1980 at the Westin Hotel. It was a benefit. The day before that benefit I had met with Liberace, his manager, and his bodyguard Michael,' Joe told SGN. 'At the benefit I was with the owners of the Brass Door' [a Gay disco on E. Pike St. where a sports bar now resides].
Joe saw Jim from across the room and thought he looked like Liberace.
'He looks just like Lee Liberace,' I said. My friends introduced us and we had a very long conversation that night,' Joe told SGN. 'He too knew Lee Liberace - our friendship grew from there.'
'[Jim] would show up at my home to take me to work every morning,' said Joe. 'Never asked a single thing from me, but did that for a couple of years. Shortly after that I moved in to the place that he had extra room in.'
Joe said that the extra room was unfortunately available because Jim's partner, Tony Russo, had passed away.
'That changed Jim. Up to that point I'd never seen that man sad before, but he shut down,' Joe told SGN. 'He got his smile back when he met a young, interesting person who invaded my home, called David Munden.'
Both Joe and David smiled.
'Let's see. I was 14, so 1989 - I'm the baby of the family,' said David. 'I was a street kid. I had been a street kid for a long time, several years.'
'The first time I met him he gave me his phone number. I knew if I didn't have any place to go, or I was hungry, he'd come meet me and buy me a meal. There were a few occa-sions where I'd had absolutely nowhere to go and he'd take me down to the shelter. It was supposed to be for 18-year-olds or older only, but he'd call up the manager and sneak me in there,' said David.
'One day, it was shortly after my 15th birthday, he met me down at the Mercer Denny's, which doesn't exist anymore. He was sitting across the table and he asked me, 'What the fuck are you doing?' He was very mild-mannered,' said David.
Everyone agreed and said that Jim didn't swear much.
'With your life, what are you doing?' David continued. 'He asked me if I wanted to be 30 years old, still sitting on the street begging for money.
'He told me I was too smart to be running around on the streets. He made me a deal that he would provide my housing, my food, my clothes - whatever I needed, as long as I got my GED and started college,' David told SGN. 'That was almost a prerequisite of Jim's, that if he was going to give his time and take care of you, the only thing he asked was that you walk the straight and narrow.'
The three brothers nodded. Joe, who does finance for the Seattle-based law firm Perkins Coie, said that Jim was responsible for what he's now able to do. The case is the same for Steven and David. Steven owns his own business. David recently sold a business and is currently coaching a youth karate team that's going to Israel in July to compete in the Maccabiah Games.
CHARITIES AND ACTIVISM
Over the years, Jim owned and operated several bars: the 922, the 944, the 611 (here Steven added that Jim liked his numbers), Oz, the Tacky Tavern, and the Crescent.
Jim was also involved with and helped start many charities, including the Knights of Malta [now the Knights of Mantra], Bailey-Boushay, Pennies from Heaven, and Strand Helpers, which donated food and funds to other organizations. He also held a plethora of benefits at all of his bars, through police repression, the AIDS crisis of the '80s - every-thing.
'If there was a need he would do whatever he could,' said David.
'He never said 'no,' added Joe. 'He stopped at nothing to help the Gay community and the community at large.'
'The slogan of Strand Helpers always really personified my dad. Their slogan was 'helping others help themselves.' He really believed in that. He was willing to help anyone who was willing to stand up and help themselves,' David told SGN.
'When it came to his bars, the fact that he had to pay off the police [to prevent raids] was horribly offensive to him. It wasn't that he couldn't afford to do it, but it was a horrible injustice and nobody knew how to fix it.'
STANDING UP TO THE SPD
On this last point it was necessary to consult the editor-in-chief of SGN, George Bakan, with his wealth of historical knowledge.
In the late '70s, when many of Seattle's Gay bars were still in Pioneer Square, bar owners were paying off the SPD to avoid police harassment, Bakan said. He recalled that the police would harass people in all sorts of ways.
'They'd arrest people for jaywalking outside the bars,' said Bakan. 'There was always this trepidation about going out to a Gay bar.'
'It would be substantial amounts of money,' Bakan continued. 'Somebody [from the SPD] would show up and they'd get a couple hundred bucks a week. The bar owners got to-gether and said 'we're not doing this anymore' and they went public.'
'It was a scandal,' said Bakan. 'The police chief resigned; three or four cops went to jail.'
Bakan emphasized that many bar owners were involved, but Jim played a vital role behind the scenes, making things happen - like he always did.
'He was very, very smart,' said Bakan. 'He was probably the perfect person to do it.'
FRIEND TO ALL
'We ate out at restaurants three meals a day,' said Steven.
Everyone laughed and they all agreed that Jim was the kind of guy who always made sure you were fed. It didn't matter who you were. Friend, enemy - irrelevant.
'He always dressed impeccably,' said Joe.
'He definitely liked to dress well,' added David, laughing. 'He'd always comb his hair before he'd answer the door. You'd be standing there waiting.'
'He didn't drink,' said Joe. 'He smoked for a few short years, and I'd like to think that he never did drugs, but we did find some things.'
They all laughed and Steven said, 'I'd like to think that he came across those things as a bar owner.'
He loved his boys unconditionally.
'Right, wrong or indifferent, he never turned his back on any of us,' said Steven.
'There was some yelling sometimes, though,' added Joe.
A TRUE FATHER
At this point in the conversation, I made the observation that despite the fact that Jim adopted these three men, everything they've told me is indicative of nothing other than a family. Initially, I'd wondered if I should put the word sons in quotes, but it shouldn't be written that way. Biology aside, these three men are brothers and Jim doesn't sound like anything other than their father.
'In every sense of the word,' said Joe, 'he was.'
'It's hard to describe him as anything other than 'my dad' and the true meaning of 'dad.' He never made me feel like anything other than loved, even when he was mad at me,' said Steven. 'I know my real father. He lives in South Seattle. He abandoned me. I was very lucky I met Jim.'
'Where our own biological fathers may have failed us, he succeeded in every way,' said Joe.
'He never really said 'I told you so,' he'd just grin at me,' said David.
'Oh, that soft smirk he'd have - it said everything,' said Joe.
WALKING THE WALK
The three brothers said that their father always abhorred discrimination and they joke that it was evident in the three of them.
'I think he purposely tried to complete the circle,' said Joe.
'He was German and he took in a Hispanic [Joe], a Black [Steven], and a Jew,' added David, laughing.
Jim also had quite a few grandkids from his sons. David has six children and Steve has four biological, two step, and one adopted. From them, Jim also had two great-grandchildren.
Steven smiled and said that he loved his grandkids because he could 'spoil them and send them home.'
'I think Christmas time was his favorite time of year - he loved shopping for the grandkids,' said David.
THE FINAL TRIBUTE
A celebration of life was held for Jim on January 20 at the Crescent, which Jim owned. At least 100 people packed the small bar, including most of the Crescent staff, all of whom knew and loved him. Extended family, members of the Court system, members of the Knights of Mantra (which Jim helped found), all came out to share memories and grieve. At the end, the group moved outside and released a large assemblage of red balloons, with personal notes for Jim attached to them. Joe said what made it especially emo-tional for him was that as the balloons flew into the street and off into the sky, not a single car honked or attempted to get around them - they, too, sat and watched.
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