Former San Angelo Mayor
J. W. Lown
...recently seen in town...
by Kat Rowoldt
Love Trumps Mayorship!
This is probably a story I never would have dreamed I would be doing for several reasons, but mutual dear friends wanted the two of us to meet and for me to do a story on their long-time friend, the former Mayor J. W. Lown. We exchanged a few emails and set a date and time to meet while he was in town. We also noted that neither of us had a topic in mind or any set agenda in what we wanted to talk about. We'd just see where it went when we met and have fun in the process.
T-Bears was the requested location to meet. It is an old stomping ground for JW and even today he was a very welcomed old friend of both servers and customers. In the two hours we chatted, I'm not sure there was anyone who came and went that did not know him and all had to share a word and hug. This was going to be an interesting interview.
I began the conversation letting JW know the extent of what I knew about him which was virtually nothing. My brother had been friends with his parents, George and Alicia Lown. I knew JW had been mayor and had left abruptly after being re-elected to his fourth term to move to Mexico with the person he had fallen in love with. His partner wasn't a woman. My rough remembrance of him being mayor was that he was outgoing and creating excitement and taking San Angelo to new levels. I had to explain that my lack of not knowing more about his mayoral terms was due to his terms in office being during the time I was taking care of my Mother at the end of her life.
Where would our conversation go? On the table he had placed a book that he brought to show me. It was a beautiful published book filled with photos of himself and his love while they vacationed in England. The photographer was JW's ex-wife. That's a unique story in itself. He lovingly stroked the book's cover to draw my attention to the cover photo. He wanted me to see the person who makes his eyes twinkle when he talks.
Yes - I was about to be in a very unique opportunity to talk with a gay man in a very frank conversation. He was very open about how all of this happened in his life and where he finds himself today. We were both on safe ground. He trusted me to handle this very private / public issue of his and I felt comfortable to explore this topic - something that so many Christians would never go near and would never try to understand.
After a couple of hours of fast moving conversation, I had a lot of information to think about and piece together, along with the realization that his life was one that was NOT raised in a Christian home. He would share that he had suffered from melancholia, and by that noting there was lots of depression and sadness.
JW is the son of a multi-cultural marriage. His father, George, was a very large man, topping out at one point at 425 Pounds. His extremely large size embarrassed JW and was an issue between them. I got the feeling that they were not close. His father was raised a Baptist, but would follow his wife in exploring other faiths until such a time near the end of his life when he returned to his childhood church, First Baptist.
His mother was an extremely beautiful Mexican woman who became a naturalized citizen in the early 1980’s. JW was very close to his mother and even followed her on her spiritual journey. Alicia Lown was raised in the Catholic Church but left at some point and she and her husband helped co-found the Unity Church here in San Angelo. But she still didn't find what she was seeking there and so she began attending and practicing the Christian Scientist faith. JW recalls his journey of faith with her. From the time he was 12 until he was 19, JW and his mom attended and practiced that faith. JW lost his mother way too young. He was only 19 when she died.
JW had been attending ASU when his mother passed. He decided to attend the Christian Scientist Church’s college in Elsah, IL, known as Principia College, where he attended for three years. To attend that school you had to agree and sign a moral code of conduct which stated that you would not engage in sexual activity, drugs, alcohol or smoking. JW admitted that his downfall became cigarettes. This faith, though they use the Bible as one of several books to study and follow, is based on a very rigid lifestyle and does not believe in what we would call traditional medicine. Like the Unity Church, Christian Scientist Church is not considered a Christian church because they include other "writings" outside of the Bible as being sacred documents and teachings to obey and follow.
Completing college opened up a whole new void in his life. What was he to do now with his life? The traditional thing is to marry and go through the motions and steps that you see and understand that are a part of life's journey. He decided to marry his college sweetheart. After only four months of marriage he had to confront the truth and tell her that this marriage wasn't working for him. He broke her heart. She was truly in love with him.
There stands the big void once again. Aloneness! Melancholia! Lost and unfocused! He felt that he needed to go serve, but not in the traditional role of the military. Instead, he chose to join the Peace Corps. While in the Peace Corps he wrote the Christian Scientist Church and asked them to remove his name from their church roles. During his 27 months commitment with the Peace Corps his dad died.
I can't imagine being at such a young age to have lost both parents and to be serving in a foreign country when the news arrives of a parent’s death. His life had been one of sadness and heartache. Now that was wrapped up in a total aloneness, with no family, no faith and no idea as to what to do next. JW does have a sister who is six years older. Their age difference is probably one factor that caused them to not be as close as many siblings at that time in his life.
He returned to finish out his commitment with the Peace Corps. His mother was gone, his marriage didn't hold for him what he had hoped for, his faith hadn't worked for him and he left it, and now his father was gone too. He was struggling with his melancholia and that natural instinct within all of us to want to find joy and happiness in life.
He paused in our conversation and shared a very special "awakening" moment he had in his life. He was working in a Bolivian prison on a project with some Mennonites. The year was 2000. He was going through the prison when he suddenly saw some words written on a chalkboard in English. That wasn't the native language.
"TO BE OR NOT TO BE" jumped off that chalkboard and into his spirit. He asked the woman who had written it why she had written those words. Without many words and more with his eyes, I knew at least to JW it read to him: TO BE OR NOT TO BE GAY. That was his moment when that reality became alive in him.
He finished his service commitment and returned home. Everything was different now to him. When he had last lived in San Angelo he had parents and a place to call home. A portion of his time had been committed to reading the books of the Christian Scientist Church - but now - he had to find a new footing and path to journey.
His struggles with the medical condition known as melancholia should not imply that he was withdrawn and moping around. That is not JW. He is a well studied man with a burning desire to do something and help others. This man genuinely loves people. People are his way of filling the void of not having a family to retreat to for comfort. In fact, several families took in this young pup and began to mentor him and aid him by giving direction.
He somewhat chuckled and pointed over to where a booth used to be in T-Bears. He said, pointing his finger, 'that's the spot where the idea of being mayor was mentioned to me. Louise Korona and I were talking and I asked her what I should do now. She said, ‘why not run for mayor?’ I think she was half way teasing when she said that, but that night it ignited a spark and the race was on.'
Now when you turn the subject to being mayor, JW lights up. He proudly informed me that he attended 1600 meetings, social events, ribbon cuttings, etc. per year as mayor. He smiled and said that Mayor Morrison was trying to top his record. The challenge is on.
JW loved being mayor. He was only twenty-six years old when he was elected, making him the youngest mayor in the nation for a city with a population over 75,000. He found so many things for himself in being mayor. San Angelo became his family. He embraced the position as working for his family. He was pouring himself out through serving others, a pattern he had been doing all of his life.
He had served his mother by following her into her new faith and even continued after her death by attending a college founded in that faith - a sense of duty. He served the world by working for the Peace Corps for 27 months helping people in need - fulfilling his duty to the world. Now he was serving his city, his new family, by accepting the mayorship - once again a duty based service.
This was his life, a life of serving others. Yes - he was still being plagued with bouts of melancholia but he was busy doing for others. Life rolled on.
In the midst of his campaign for his fourth term of office, his assistant, Spencer Matthews, told him he had a message from an ASU student who had an assignment to talk with someone who had their dream job. He wanted to interview JW. Since his schedule was packed with all the normal things of being mayor and interlaced with political campaigning, he decided that this interview would have to be just a quick phone conversation and not a face-to-face.
A few weeks later at an event he had the opportunity to meet the student who had interviewed him. He didn't get a chance to really visit with him at that moment. I think he was intrigued that this person thought he had the "dream job" and probably wanted to give that young man a bit more of his time. One evening on his way to Cheddars for a bite to eat, he gave him a call and asked if he'd like to meet him for dinner. JW wanted to know how he did on his research paper. That was February 2009.
The next three months of his life would be the most challenging, scary, and emotional for him. He was now confronted with a decision on family, on focus, on forward direction for his life. His melancholia bubble had busted. He had discovered happiness and it was good.
The ASU student very quickly put a twinkle in his eye, a heaviness in his heart, and a brutal decision to be made in his life. It was a wonderful time in his life that he describes as scary. It was scary because he was going to have to make some incredible choices. This new love in his life was not legally in the US. He had come to the states with relatives when he was in junior high school. He'd been here for years - but he still was not a US citizen.
The life he had developed and grown to love for the last six years was being trumped by love. But it wasn't just love. He was mayor. He was a candidate for re-election. He was being challenged by a couple of high school seniors – students – so he couldn't just drop out of the race and let one of them win. What would happen to his family (San Angelo) leaving them in one of their hands? He chose to finish the race. By staying in the race, if he chose not to serve, they would have to call for another election and possibly someone with business skills, management experience, and the time to serve would step up and run.
JW began studying the immigration issues and talking with anyone who could possibly advise on what to do. The most common response was "cut off the relationship." That wasn't an option he was willing to do. When his research was exhausted, his campaign was won, the final decision awaited. On the day that he was to be sworn into office to uphold the Constitution of the United States, he knew that this time he could not take that oath. How could he take that oath and be living a life that was breaking it!
In a last minute decision he called his love and told him to grab what things he needed and pack up. They were about to head to the border together and begin a process to do things in the proper order. His love agreed and hurriedly they gathered the basics they needed and prepared to leave. JW wrote a letter of resignation and left it on his desk at City Hall. The decision was made. For the first time in his life JW put his own self before everyone else. This was his moment for himself. I can't imagine the pain, the agony of the weightiness of those moments. He loved being Mayor. That was his identity. He owned that position and was so loved by his constituents/family.
Shortly he was picking up his life partner and heading to Mexico. The conversation down the road was about what they were doing. Either of them had permission to change their minds and stop the escape. Numerous times they asked each other if they wanted to do this. They both knew that they were going to have to spend years in Mexico before they could return to the states - legally. They would get in line.
Can you imagine those last few moments as they approached the international bridge, looking one another in the eye, and saying a final yes to one another before they crossed over and facing whatever would be ahead for them. Was it the right decision? Would the other say no at the very last minute? It must have been a "forever" moment frozen in time.
JW couldn't bring himself to think about the reaction his family (San Angelo) was having to his sudden departure. He didn't say any good-byes. He didn't explain anything to those who had given him so much. He just left. I think it took the abruptness for him to leave. Saying good-bye would have been too painful.
At some point, after they found a place to stay for a season, he asked his sister to pack up his home. She did. She moved his things out to the family place around Christoval.
Like a deep wound that wouldn't heal, he cared so deeply about the life, the people, and his community that he had abandoned. His life of exile because of immigration laws had forced him to leave so they could put things in the proper order.
Last year he had to return to San Angelo for the very first time. He was to be the best man in his friend's wedding. He cannot adequately put into words the heart-warming reception he received last year from everyone when he returned. Looking up at me he said, "I've been homesick ever since."
He received over 1000 emails of support and ‘only 3 that were nasty.’ San Angelo truly is home and he is looking forward to when they can return. The irony of the situation now is that with Obama's Dream Act - they would not have had to leave. His love would have qualified and could have stayed. But that wasn’t then, and this is now, and today they stand at the back of the line and await their turn.
His love graduated from college the following year and now JW is attending school again, this time to get his law degree. He goes to school from 7am-10am and then sells luxury real estate in San Miguel. He is a real estate broker, like his Mother once was.
This fall they plan to marry and depending on the laws in the United States they do plan to return. Hopefully by the end of year 2014 they will be back, but it could take as long as 2019 before they can come “home.”
JW does miss his home. He has been so deeply touched by all the outpouring of love and kind words by everyone he has seen on his two trips home since he abruptly left.
I asked him what his vision is/was for this city. His immediate response was that life goes on with or without us. Then he thought for a moment and reflected on the quality of life we have here. I think we all understand what is meant when we say “quality of life” that San Angelo uniquely encompasses.
I asked him where his faith is now and he replied, “I’m so happy now, I don’t go there. I don’t want to mess up what I’ve found.”
As we emailed back and forth on a few details to wrap up the story, he signed off – Vaya con Dios. I replied, Vaya con Dios, mi amigo.