TAMPA — No matter where he went, no matter what he did, a spotlight always seemed to follow William Gerald Wade.
At 6-foot-5, the musician was destined to draw attention by stature alone. But friends say Wade never shrank from an opportunity to blaze a trail.
He turned heads as the shy child prodigy who graduated St. Petersburg Junior College at 16. He was the subversive "Homecoming Princess" who thrust Florida State University into the national news. And, as an adult, he was the musical genius who found fame in delivering elite trainees, piano accompaniments, and plays to Broadway.
Even after he was diagnosed with colon cancer, Wade worked on his original musicals, coached vocal students and drew crowds when he sat down at a piano in his favorite New York City bars.
The cancer led to the 54-year-old’s death in a New York City hospital room on Feb. 26. Before he passed, Wade finally received his standing ovation in the form of hundreds of messages from his fans across the world, read aloud by Jay Rogers and other friends seated at his bedside.
"At the end, he knew he was beloved by so, so many," Rogers said. "A gentle giant with a heart big enough to encapsulate a world that was often cruel to him."
It was the cruelty of others that fueled the ambition, Rogers said.
Wade never fit in at Dixie Hollins High, and when he enrolled in FSU as a 17-year-old junior he quickly fell in with the small counterculture crowd on campus that embraced his homosexuality and anti-establishment quirks.
After just a few weeks of school in the fall of 1980, Wade decided to run for homecoming princess as a satirical stunt he could later laugh at with his friends. He never expected to win, or to see his face in national news stories on the administration’s standoff with the American Civil Liberties Union when they asked him to relinquish the title.
Death threats and insults followed, and Wade dropped out of FSU. Even after moving to New York City and finding success as a musician he was haunted by the experience, said his friend and collaborator Frank Blocker.
Few of Wade’s New York City friends knew of the episode until a Tampa Bay Times reporter chronicled his returned to FSU in 2016 to join the university’s former homecoming chiefs and princesses on the football field for a reunion. This time, no one booed or threw trash at Wade when he took the field in his red, satin homecoming sash, but the experience didn’t bring him the healing he might have hoped for, Blocker said.
"I remember being surprised because I had never seen William hurt about something, but for such a big person with a big personality it really changed him in a lot of ways," Blocker said. "I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but I think some of the pain came back in a worse way."
Despite the rejection he had sometimes felt from others, Wade dedicated his life to helping people find the strength to make themselves better, said his friend and former roommate Keith Odums.
"He had a thick skin and was the kind of no-nonsense, no-filter teacher who would flat out tell you the truth," Odums said, "but he had this ability to break down a sound and how to reproduce it that made his students thank him many times over, despite the criticisms."
He coached young musical theater students both in Tampa and New York City.
He volunteered as a vocal coach for the nonprofit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids, and he joined the Mark Morris Dance Group to bring music therapy to Parkinson’s patients.
Hundreds of people have posted about Wade in recent months on Facebook and GoFundMe, where some donated to cancer treatment. Messages arrive even from strangers like Nan Little, 72, a writer from Seattle who ordered the Mark Morris group’s Dance for PD (Parkinson’s disease) DVD. The film’s opening dance, Sun Salutation, is set to Wade’s rendition of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata 8 in C Minor. Little remembered hearing the song nearly every Saturday morning on Karl Haas’ Adventures in Good Music radio show, which was broadcast from the same Detroit office building where Little grew up visiting her father at work, she wrote.
"With William’s heartfelt playing, I was a little girl again," Little said.
His friends remember how Wade insisted on living with the Sioux Indians in South Dakota while writing his musical On Wounded Knee, and how he provided the piano accompaniment for Joan Rivers’ final performance before her death. They wrote of the ethereal chill he created in the score for his musical Warsaw, and the way strangers would request by name the songs he wrote for his obscure, grown-up, musical version of Alice in Wonderland, called Alice.
"He had that ability to rip your guts out or inspire you to be better just by choosing the right notes," Blocker said. "He’s worked for the best, he’s played with the best and he made people their best."
Contact Anastasia Dawson at [email protected] or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adawsonwrites.