by Paul Hufstedler
Rosevelt Winchester, Jr.
1952 – 1999
“Thank God for his life!” exclaims Reverend Cecil Williams of San Francisco’s Glide Memorial Church. He is referring to Rosevelt Winchester.
“Rosevelt loved being around folks. When he walked and talked and mourned and felt inadequate and felt hopeful, he did so with a community of people. They took his life seriously.”
Rosevelt was the second of seven children. Of all the things that mattered in his life—family, weight-lifting and running—singing in the Glide Ensemble was just about the most important. Anyone who attended the church realizes just how important the Ensemble is to the worship services there.
“He loved Glide,” says Loretta, one of five sisters. “Singing at church gave him energy, gave him life. His singing lifted others, actually changed lives.”
“His whole life was the choir,” says his friend Larry Lynch. “He was a sort of father-figure to us in the Ensemble, often taking over for the choir director.”
Rev. Williams agrees: “Rosevelt was a good teacher. He would correct singers in the group—no matter where they might be performing! He’d say, ’This is how you do it,’ and he was right.
“He was a musician’s musician. But not only in song. Rosevelt also had a melody about his life,” says Rev. Williams. And he was the man to see with your problems. “He had an attitude of openness, and clarity. He was a visionary. He loved folks unconditionally and accepted folks unconditionally.”
“Rosevelt gave good counsel,” says Loretta. “He could always give you a better way to look at things.” He could reach people, and people reached out to him.
Rosevelt lived with his own HIV and AIDS for a decade and a half, yet somehow found the strength to help others through their ordeal. When partners and friends passed away from AIDS, each invariably had his head resting on Rosevelt’s shoulder. At times, it taxed him.
“Why do I have to be the doorkeeper?” he once wearily asked his sister. Yet, as his own health began to fail, he continued to push himself to sing. “A lot of times when he should have been home in bed, he was out singing with [the Glide Ensemble]—sometimes in the rain,” Larry remembers. “He couldn’t see, or breathe to sing. He might not even have money for gas. But he was there.” His friend Alana Rothman adds, “As sick as he was, he never lost his sense of humor.”
Rosevelt’s final struggle was blessedly brief. Rev. Williams says Rosevelt “didn’t want to go, didn’t want to die. He didn’t want to give up, even when he was in the hospital. He’d say, ‘Give me another day to fight.’ What a rare human being. I’m proud to have been his minister.”
Funeral services were held at Glide November 8, 1999. A week later, friends and family gathered in the National AIDS Memorial Grove to plant a tree in remembrance of this son and brother, this father and grandfather, this friend and spirit.
Just a few short months after that, Rosevelt’s older brother Arthur succumbed to cancer. How can one family cope with such loss? “God bears all burdens,” says Loretta simply. “Our grandmother believed in the words of the hymn ‘Blessed Assurance.’ So do we. So do we.”
“I think this family has an indomitable spirit,” says Alana.
Although Rosevelt’s hopeful energy and signature voice are now missing from the Ensemble, the risers upon which the singers stand have been dedicated to his memory. A scholarship fund in his name was established, assisting young people who are considering pursuits in the arts.