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    Remembering Ross Woodall: The Man With a Cane and a Smile

    By Dr. Tim Seelig–

    “We are not expendable.”
    —F. Ross Woodall

    In the beloved musical Wicked we hear these words, “Because I knew you, I have been changed for good.” Those words could be sung by anyone who met Ross Woodall. He was a hero to all, and deliciously wicked.

    Ross had way more than nine lives. They ran out this past December 1, 2023, on World AIDS Day. He had lived with AIDS and been an activist for others with HIV/AIDS for more than four decades.

    There are way too many facets of Ross’ many lives to cover in one article. He would want me to skim over his beginning as an accomplished church organist in Texas. I won’t skim over the love of his life, Danny, and their 32-year relationship. It’s the thing of romance novels. Thank you, Danny, for the honor to write this story.

    We had a lot in common: we both escaped the great state of Texas and the church, and we had a shared love of music and activism. He joined the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus (SFGMC) in 2003, and we met six years later. We just loved each other from the get-go and shared more laughs “than Carter has Little Liver Pills.” (Ross is getting a huge laugh out of that!)

    Broadway composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz and Ross Woodall during one of Schwartz’s guest appearances with the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus
    Photos Courtesy of Tim Seelig

    Ross had a beautiful voice and perfect pitch, which drove him crazy when his beloved 2nd tenors wandered a little. For my second concert with SFGMC, I wanted to show off the roots Ross and I shared. The concert was titled Hootenanny. His favorite song was, “There’ll Be No Bad Days in Heaven.” Neither of us had any. Ross auditioned for the solo in “Home on the Range.” He stunned us all when moved to the microphone with the help of his cane and sang, “How often at night when the heavens are bright with the light of the glittering stars, I stand there amazed and I ask as I gaze, does their glory exceed that of ours?” Not a dry eye. That was Ross. Not an ounce of self-pity. His challenges never caused him to miss the beauty in the world around him.

    He met Danny in Austin, Texas, in 1988. They dated for a bit, but decided their baggage didn’t match and went their own ways. At Thanksgiving of 1990, they each had terrible family dinners and escaped to an Austin gay bar to decompress. As fate would have it, they ran into each other in the parking lot, hugged, locked lips, and stayed locked for the next 32 years! They moved to San Francisco in 1992 and had a commitment ceremony at the Unitarian Church in 1995.

    The year after Danny and Ross’ ceremony, 1996, Ross’ health challenges began. He was declared legally blind. His medical charts were staggering. Here are just some of the things from the 80 diagnoses and procedures from 1996 to 2015: diabetes (type 2), glaucoma, cirrhosis, esophageal varices, thyroid cancer, liver thrombosis, chronic kidney disease, knee replacement, hernia, aortic stenosis, cornea transplant, and sepsis.

    In 2012, when exiting Muni at the gay Safeway on Market, he stumbled and fell, fracturing his left and right humerus (upper arm). It’s impossible to imagine being blind and not having use of either arm! Danny was there to make things work and, instead of wallowing, Ross adopted the drag persona Miss DeCurb. He would not allow anything to get in the way of cracking a joke at his own expense to make others feel better!

    Ross Woodall on stage singing with Dr. Tim Seelig during a San Francisco Gay Men’s
    Chorus concert.

    Then the big one. In 2015, Ross’ health took a downward spiral. He needed a liver transplant. He was put on the list to wait. He finally turned to his chosen, logical family: the chorus. He shared the fact that he would most surely die without a transplant. Quite a few tested but none were a match. A new member, Dave Andrade, had just joined the chorus when Ross made a second appeal. Dave tested. He was a match. On January 27, 2016, he gave Ross part of his liver. They became what we call a bonded pair from that moment—laughing, loving, and singing together. It was selfless love on both sides.

    Now for “wicked” Ross! This story is from a chorus member. He first met Ross at a welcome event. They talked about music and HIV activism. The newbie, weighing 350 pounds at that time, thought he would pull one off on Ross. He told him he was a 154 pound, 6’ 3” twink. Ross quipped, “Honey, I can see shapes.”

    A few years ago, Ross and Danny relocated to Palm Springs, as gays are wont to do. Ross’ favorite bar was The Tool Shed. His bestie Jeff would take him to underwear contests on Thursdays. Jeff’s job as the wingman was to bring contestants over saying, “My friend is blind. Would you come over and meet him?” Ross would offer to “judge contestants” using Braille since he couldn’t see. No one turned him down. I mean, how could they with that charming smile of his?

    Ross used his health challenges to tirelessly help others. Ross was honored for his work with the SF AIDS Foundation, AIDS Legal Referral Group, Human Rights Foundation, SFMTA, Lighthouse for the Blind, the Mayor’s Office on Disability, GALA Choruses, and many more.

    In 2011, he was honored by the Mayor’s Disability Council of San Francisco for what was, at that point, 17 years of service. The speeches in his honor were deeply moving. He was described as a role model of leadership, selfless, and so much fun to work with. “He brought grace, charm, discipline, and humor to the job. He brought his own high expectations and his whole self to the work at hand.” Again, there was not a dry eye in the council chambers that day. Everyone got a good laugh when self-deprecating Ross pretended to “read” the certificate they gave him!

    Ross Woodall vacationing in Puerto Vallarta

    At the podium, Ross quipped, “Not too bad for a guy who was supposed to be dead in 1987. People with disabilities who are considered to be less than whole … they just don’t know us. They miss out on how much we can and do contribute. We do it quietly with great passion. I’m just a small cog in what is a much larger movement and is going to need to be much larger in the days to come. We are not expendable. We are integral.”

    Ross was integral to our lives. We missed him terribly when he had to be gone for medical reasons. We all celebrated every time he walked into rehearsal returning to his passion—activism through music. He did not enter quietly. He made sure we knew he was there as he took his rightful and hard-earned place on the front row of the second tenors. He also never hesitated to literally holler out hilarious comments about my conducting, the music, or whatever came to mind. Not only was his singing beautiful, but also his musicianship was impeccable. Best of all, he learned the choreography as well or better than the rest of the chorus. It did help that he sat in the front row next to our amazing choreographer, Steve Valdez.

    We have been changed for good by this man with a cane and a smile. Dr. Maya Angelou often reminded us, “There is a rainbow in every cloud.” Ross was that rainbow for all of us lucky enough to have known him.

    There will be a celebration of life on Saturday, April 27, at the National AIDS Memorial Grove.

    Dr. Tim Seelig is the Conductor Laureate of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus.

    TLC: Tears, Laughs and Conversation
    Published on April 4, 2024