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What happened to William Wade? After 35 years, hope for a real homecoming

TALLAHASSEE

He stands in the tunnel that leads to the field, the fingers on his left hand opening and closing into a nervous fist.

Five minutes until halftime.

It's a sunny November afternoon and the homecoming crowd is riled up. The Florida State Seminoles have just scored a touchdown against North Carolina State. The fans are on their feet, swinging their arms like tomahawks and cheering so loudly the stadium shakes.

William Wade doesn't seem to notice. His mind is elsewhere in time.

He should have been in this breezy, red-brick tunnel 35 years ago, preparing to be recognized at halftime with the rest of the homecoming court. The crowd would have cheered when his name was called.

Or booed.

He never got the chance to find out.

It was all because of an act of subversion ahead of its time: Wade, then a 17-year-old junior at Florida State, ran for homecoming princess — and won.

His unexpected victory pit New Florida against Old Florida. The university's tradition-bound establishment was furious. His classmates heckled him, threw rocks as he walked across campus. The police told him it was too dangerous for him to appear on the field at halftime. Someone had threatened to shoot him.

Now, he has returned to Doak Campbell Stadium as a 52-year-old man, not for a do-over of the 1980 homecoming but to close this chapter of his life. He must take these 60 steps across the famed football field to finally grow up.

That's what he tells himself, anyway.

But if he steps on that field, he will have to relive the unusual string of events that left a bruise on Florida State and altered the course of his life.

• • •

As a kid growing up in St. Petersburg, William Wade was different.

He wasn't like his younger brother, a champion wrestler, or his sister, a pageant winner.

He started reading early. Nancy Drew mysteries. The encyclopedia. The Bible. He took note of the interesting words he learned and used them in conversation. That didn't ingratiate him with the kids at school. Neither did his near-perfect grades.

A teacher once told him he was "socially retarded."

In fourth-grade music class, he discovered he was good at the recorder — so good that he needed more challenging songs. He picked up the clarinet next, then started teaching himself the piano.

He shocked his parents one afternoon by playing Beethoven's Fur Elise without any formal training. Bobby and Grace Wade quickly hired a woman from church to give their son piano lessons. She quit within months; she had nothing left to teach him.

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

William Wade plays piano for a class that helps those with Parkinson's disease at The Julliard School in the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in New York City on Friday, December 4, 2015.

Playing the piano was the only time Wade felt completely at ease. It was like having a conversation. He could command a room with a classical piece — and make everyone laugh with a few bars from a cartoon theme song.

He got involved in his high school's production of Oklahoma! and was selected for the All-State Band. But he still struggled to make friends. Coming out in the ninth grade — the same year singer Anita Bryant assembled a coalition to oppose gay rights in Miami — hadn't made things any easier.

He was bored and lonely. He wanted to grow up and get out.

Halfway through his sophomore year at Dixie Hollins High, Wade asked his mom if he could drop out and enroll at St. Petersburg Junior College. Grace made a deal with her son. If he could earn high marks in night classes while finishing the year at Dixie Hollins, he could carry out his plan.

Wade's GPA at junior college that first semester was a 3.87.

Within two months of his 17th birthday, he had earned his associate's degree. The accomplishment caught the attention of a Harvard recruiter, who urged him to apply. But Wade didn't want to waste time. Harvard wouldn't accept his junior college credits and allow him to enroll as a third-year student. Florida State would.

• • •

Students flooded Florida State University in August 1980. They walked two-by-two across the quad, found shade under the live oak trees.

Even surrounded by 25,000 students, William Wade stood out.

He was 6-foot-5, 250 pounds and built like a football player. Most of his clothes came from thrift shops in St. Petersburg. He had a particular fondness for vintage blazers and cardigans.

Wade fell in with a small group of students who embraced the 1970s counterculture. They were leftover hippies and artists who smoked cigarettes and listened to David Bowie and Talking Heads. They frequented the 24-hour coffee shop and the gay disco in town.

One afternoon in late September, Wade was hanging out with a female friend when the conversation drifted to homecoming. Students were already buzzing about the elections for homecoming chief and princess, FSU's version of king and queen.

Can you believe this kind of thing still exists? he said.

It's totally sexist, his friend replied.

A waste of money, too, Wade added. I hear people spend hundreds of dollars on their campaigns.

Thousands, she corrected him.

It's really just about the fraternities and sororities. That's who runs the show.

He rolled his eyes and took a long drag on his cigarette. An absurd idea came to mind.

Wouldn't it be funny if I ran for princess?, he said.

Wade and his friend laughed. But Wade was only half joking.

It wasn't because he was gay; his sexuality had nothing to do with it. No, what he wanted to do was shine a light on how superficial FSU's homecoming was, how the spectacle reinforced gender stereotypes. Why should the chief always be macho, the princess passive and petite? He could flip that notion on its head.

His friends loved it.

A few days later, Wade went to the student activities office to ask about the requirements for running. Candidates for princess needed to have a 3.0 GPA and be in their junior or senior year. The rules said nothing about gender.

• • •

A total of 20 students ran for homecoming princess in 1980.

Wade spent the least of them all: His entire campaign cost just $3.56, enough for a few dozen photocopies and a roll of scotch tape.

"Billie Dahhling," he called himself on his campaign posters. "A queen with a difference."

Nobody in the student activities office questioned Wade when he submitted the paperwork to run. They didn't think he could win. But word of his candidacy spread quickly. It made headlines across the state — and put some FSU administrators on edge.

"That one character has upset a whole year's work by the student body," Director of Alumni Affairs Bob Shackelton told the St. Petersburg Times. "I hope he doesn't win because it would be a problem."

Wade's circle of friends backed him, as did the drama department, the Women's Center and the decidedly anti-Greek student newspaper. On Election Day, he turned out more than 600 students.

He beat the second-place finisher by 150 votes.

He was in the parsonage at the Metropolitan Community Church, an inclusive place where gay and lesbian students hung out, when a friend phoned with the news.

Wade's first thought: "Oh, s---."

• • •

Phil Barco had a similar reaction.

The 27-year-old director of student activities knew how seriously the university took its homecoming. The fraternities and sororities had spent weeks preparing elaborate floats and decorating their houses. And hundreds of alumni were expected to attend.

The homecoming court was a particularly sacred tradition. It had been in place since 1948, and was considered a top honor for student leaders. Barco himself had been chief when he was a student at FSU in 1975. It remained among his proudest moments.

Times files

Below: Phil Barco and Susan Kelbe were the chief and princess for Florida State's homecoming in 1975. Barco was director of student activities in 1980 when Wade was elected homecoming princess.

Hours after the results were announced, calls began pouring into the alumni affairs office. Several prominent alumni threatened to withdraw their financial support for the university.

Robert Urich, star of the TV series Vega$ and an FSU alumnus, was on campus for homecoming, and told the St. Petersburg Times he was disappointed with the student body's selection.

"You know, they invited me down here to crown the homecoming queen and I get here and find out that I'm prettier than the queen."

Barco knew some students would be upset, too. He convened the newly elected chief, princess and eight-member court on the top floor of the student union the morning after the election to discuss their feelings.

The meeting was outright hostile.

"Does he even have the grades to be princess?" one young woman asked.

"I have a 4.0 GPA," Wade said sheepishly.

The five other male students in attendance, including that year's homecoming chief, said they wouldn't participate if Wade kept his title. Three of the four female students took a similar position.

Wade tried explaining his original intent of breaking down gender stereotypes.

"I am not out to make a mockery or farce of homecoming," he insisted. "The majority of the people on the campus want to express this sentiment and they have a right."

Two young women left in tears.

The fallout overwhelmed Barco. He wasn't used to crying students and angry alumni. Homecoming was supposed to be about unity. But it was also about honor. Despite the threats and pressure, he made one thing clear: The homecoming steering committee would not invalidate the election.

• • •

The university administration had other ideas.

After the meeting in the student union, Shackelton called Wade to his office and asked him to withdraw from the homecoming court. The request infuriated him. Why bother allowing students to vote if the administration could simply change the results?

He called the American Civil Liberties Union and asked for a lawyer.

As he walked across campus that afternoon, students threw rocks and yelled profanities. A driver in a white Cadillac spotted him and stepped on the gas, either to hit him or to scare him.

Wade reported it all to the police. But without more to go on, they couldn't determine who was responsible.

He returned to his dorm around 9:30 that night to find death threats carved into his door. Someone had urinated on the floor in the hallway.

He went inside, packed an overnight bag and left for the church, where he knew he would be safe.

Wade spent the night on the beat-up couch in the parsonage. He had trouble falling asleep. For the first time in his life, he felt like he didn't have a home.

The next morning — the Friday of homecoming — Wade and his attorneys from the ACLU met with representatives from the university. The two sides spent nearly three hours working out an agreement.

They decided Wade would receive a feather headdress and bouquet of roses at Friday night's Pow Wow, a pep rally and rock concert for students featuring the Little River Band. But he could not participate in the homecoming parade. Being recognized during halftime at Saturday night's football game was also out of the question. It was too dangerous.

• • •

Wade's recollections of the 1980 homecoming are hazy.

He remembers watching the parade with a few friends from somebody's front porch. One particular banner catches his eye. It depicts a cartoon Mickey Mouse with a raised middle finger. Wade's name is scrawled beside it.

He attends the Pow Wow at the stadium that night anyway.

Shortly after Wade arrives, security guards escort him onto the field. The students in the stands shout profanities, throw trash. Someone hurriedly places the headdress atop his head. Someone else ushers him to the exit.

Outside the stadium, Wade realizes his friends' tires have been slashed.

He needs a drink. He goes to a hotel bar downtown where he knows he will be served, even though he is only 17. He has a few beers and returns to the Metropolitan Community Church.

Here's what Barco remembers:

At the Pow Wow, the student body president isn't able to give Wade the roses stipulated in his agreement with the university. The flowers arrive too late.

After the ceremony, Barco sets out to deliver the bouquet to Wade.

He finds the teenager at the church, still wearing his feather headdress. Barco recognizes the proud expression on his face. It was the same one he himself had worn the night he was elected homecoming chief.

The image stays with Barco for the next 23 years.

Mark Foley via Florida Memory Project

William Wade is pictured in 1980, after his unexpected election as Florida State homecoming princess. His attempt to make a statement quickly turned sour as other participants threatened a boycott and heckling and abuse began.

• • •

For Wade, the abuse didn't end with homecoming. The taunts continued whenever he walked across campus. One man spit chewing tobacco in his face repeatedly. Wade was too afraid to run away or defend himself.

He stopped attending classes, started hiding. He spent several nights in a cemetery not far from campus. The ground was cold and gnarled tree roots dug into his back. But he slept soundly knowing nobody would find him.

In March 1981, Wade withdrew from Florida State.

When he returned to St. Petersburg, he didn't go home. His bid for princess had strained his relationship with his parents. He stayed on friends' couches, slept in his car.

He enrolled part time at the University of South Florida and graduated at 23 with a degree in music composition. But the degree did not bring stability. There were only so many professional theater groups, church choirs and high school drama clubs to work with in St. Petersburg and Tampa. Few people were interested in his original compositions.

He grew depressed, bitter. He became convinced Florida had nothing for him.

The opportunity to move came in 1995, when a friend connected him with a dance studio in New York City in need of an accompanist. He made barely enough to afford the two-bedroom apartment he shared with five other people.

Wade had fled more than 1,000 miles. But what happened at Florida State followed him. When he went out, he was afraid of large crowds, of crossing the street. Somewhere, in the back of his mind, he worried a driver might recognize him and try to run him over. Instead of composing music and networking with theater types, he started drinking too much, wasting time in casinos.

Six years after arriving in New York, Wade once again found himself on the brink of homelessness. He was living in an apartment in Jersey City, and his two roommates were moving out. He couldn't afford the rent on his own.

Wade considered returning to Florida. But he got a lucky break: A patron at his new gig had an affordable room for rent. The job was special, too. He got to play at a well-known piano bar in Greenwich Village called Marie's Crisis.

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

William Wade poses for a portrait at The Juilliard School in the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in New York City on Friday, December 4, 2015.

• • •

Phil Barco had moved on from Florida State. After a 14-year career at his alma mater, he became executive director of the Kennesaw State University Alumni Association.

The job took him across the country to hobnob with former students. During a trip to New York City in 2003, he and several alumni stopped into a divey-looking piano bar with a funny name.

He instantly recognized the tall man behind the piano.

Barco made his way up to the bench, and in between songs, called out a question.

"What's your name?" he asked the pianist.

No response.

"Are you William Wade?"

"Are you the police?" the pianist fired back.

Barco couldn't believe it. He had long wondered what happened to William Wade. Here he was, playing piano in this dimly lit bar.

The pianist raised an eyebrow, as if to inquire what Barco wanted.

"Let me have a cocktail," Barco said. "I'll come back to you."

As he downed a Manhattan at the bar, Barco thought back to the 1980 homecoming. He had always regretted not really standing up for Wade. He saw this chance meeting as divine intervention.

He waited outside the bar until Wade emerged for a smoke break.

"I'm Phil Barco," he said slowly. "I was the director of student activities and organizations in 1980. I want to apologize to you for the pain and suffering you endured."

Wade was surprised — and touched by the gesture.

Barco asked if he could stay in contact. He had organized reunions for homecoming chiefs and princesses, and wanted to make sure Wade was at the next one.

Wade agreed. He went back inside, wondering if he would ever hear from Barco again.

• • •

By August 2015, Wade's life was falling into place.

He had landed several high-profile teaching and accompanying gigs, including a position at the Juilliard School. What's more, he had composed the music for a production called ImaginOcean that had a successful run in New York, and coached several performers to Broadway.

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

William Wade accompanies a ballet class on the piano at The Juilliard School in the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in New York City on Friday, December 4, 2015.

He enjoyed the work, particularly when his students were children, and seniors with Parkinson's disease. But his days were long. Sometimes, he didn't have enough money for a cup of coffee.

He wasn't making much headway on his bigger goals, either.

He had written three original musicals — one set in the Warsaw Ghetto, one set on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and one set in Lewis Carroll's Wonderland — and aspired to get them to Broadway. He had staged several productions of the work, some with well-known actors. But he still didn't have the funding he needed to move them to the next level, and he wasn't pounding the pavement to find it.

The jolt he needed came in a Facebook invitation.

Barco had kept his promise and stayed in touch with Wade over the years, and now he was asking all of the chiefs and princesses to attend homecoming in November. He had arranged for them to march in the parade and be recognized at halftime.

The idea intrigued Wade. He always had thought returning to Tallahassee would help him heal and move on. But he wasn't sure how he would be received by the other chiefs and princesses. And he still had lingering concerns about his safety on the field.

Would he just be opening up old wounds? Reliving past pain?

He had tried going back once, nearly 20 years before. He was in Tallahassee visiting a friend, and thought he would take a look around campus. But when he got close, he started to cry. He ended up in a sports bar, drinking too many martinis.

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

William Wade has a drink after work at the Chelsea Grill, a favorite bar of his near his apartment in New York on December 4, 2015.

He called Barco with his concerns.

"We're going to treat you like everybody else," Barco assured him. "We're going to treat you like royalty."

That was all Wade needed.

• • •

Cheerleaders, dancers and marching band members were gathering for the start of the parade in a large parking lot on Florida State's campus. Wade surveyed the scene as he returned Friday, Nov. 13. He found the alumni chiefs and princesses standing around a black BMW convertible.

Barco was the first to notice him.

"The princess has arrived!" he bellowed.

The two men embraced.

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

As the other men who were homecoming royalty pose for a photo together, William Wade, who was Homecoming Princess of 1980, stands off to the side before the homecoming parade in Tallahassee at Florida State University on November 13, 2015.

The other alumni chiefs and princesses shook Wade's hand. Some made polite conversation. But the exchanges were brief. Most of the people returned to their conversations with old friends.

Wade stood alone for a few minutes, until the 2001 princess Dazi Lenoir came by. She offered him a red satin sash with the words "Princess 1980" written across the front in gold glitter. After he put it on, she made sure it was straight.

"Looks good," she said with a smile.

The alumni royalty eventually took their place among the floats and performers, and made their way along the 2-mile parade route. They waved to the thousands of people who had gathered to watch.

Wade stayed to the back. He started seeing ghosts. The iconic iron arch that welcomed students each year. The old house where he watched the parade in 1980. His strength began unspooling like tightly wound thread.

That's when 2007 princess Asha Brewer appeared by his side.

"So you were the 1980 homecoming princess?" she asked. "What was that like?"

She peppered him with questions and offered to protect him.

"I'm not big enough to fight anyone," she said. "But I can scream."

They walked together the rest of the way.

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

William Wade walks in the homecoming parade with other former FSU homecoming royalty in Tallahassee on November 13, 2015. Wade passed by places where he was taunted by other students on the parade route.

• • •

It's game day.

Wade arrives a little late to breakfast, sits with Barco and Brewer. Conversation doesn't come easily. He is still feeling uneasy.

But he sees opportunity in the Bosendorfer piano tucked in the corner of the room. When breakfast ends, he takes a seat at the bench and plays a classical piece called Reverie. People gather around him and clap.

Before the game, there is a small gathering for the past chiefs and princesses. Barco serves as master of ceremonies. He opens with the history of the homecoming royalty going back to 1948.

"This is an impressive group," he says. "There are doctors, lawyers, educators."

Even former Gov. Charlie Crist is a member, he points out.

He introduces Wade. He gets emotional telling the story of the 1980 homecoming and his chance meeting with the princess 23 years later.

"What we hoped for you is you could experience some healing," he says. "You are our 1980 princess and we appreciate you."

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

William Wade poses for a photo with Phil Barco before walking in the homecoming parade with other former FSU homecoming royalty in Tallahassee on November 13, 2015.

After snapping a few photos, the chiefs and princesses depart separately for the stadium.

Wade needs a drink before the game, something to calm his nerves. He slips into a watering hole by the stadium and drinks one mimosa, then another. The memories flood his mind. They feel raw, real. He looks down at his red satin sash. He will be a target if he wears this on the field, he thinks to himself. He orders another mimosa.

Four hours later, he is standing in the tunnel at Doak Campbell Stadium.

A whistle blows, signaling the end of the first half. The players run toward the locker room in a pack. The marching band assembles on the sideline. The alumni chiefs and princesses begin to line up single file.

They are announced as a group. Their walk begins.

Wade hesitates. He looks up to gauge the reaction from the 71,210 people in the crowd.

Many have gotten up for halftime. But those who remain are clapping.

Wade doubts what he is seeing. The gap starts to widen between him and the person in front of him.

"C'mon!" somebody yells.

He stands up straighter, starts walking. About halfway through the end zone, he looks out to the crowd and waves.

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

When it is over, the chiefs and princesses remain on the field to take a few more photos. Barco poses for several shots. But there is one more he'd like to take. He looks around for William Wade.

The 6-foot-5 homecoming princess is nowhere to be found.

• • •

Wade walks back through the tunnel, past the concession stands and out into the parking lot.

On his way out of town, he thinks about stopping for a beer.

But as he approaches a favorite watering hole, a sense of peace comes over him. He's gotten what he came for. It's time to begin the next act.

He turns on the radio and keeps driving toward the interstate.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@tampabay.com. Follow @kmcgrory.

About this story

A Tampa Bay Times reporter and photographer spent homecoming weekend in Tallahassee with William Wade. They traveled to New York to interview him at his home and observe him at work. Information about the 1980 homecoming comes from interviews with Wade, then Director of Student Activities and Organizations Phil Barco, former ACLU attorney Mary Charlotte McCall, and former Florida State University student Greg Severance, as well as newspaper articles from the St. Petersburg Times, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, the Associated Press, UPI and the Florida Flambeau that were written at the time. Additional interviews were conducted with Grace and Bobby Wade in St. Petersburg.

What happened to William Wade? After 35 years, hope for a real homecoming 12/29/15 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 30, 2015 1:35pm]
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