When they made Fredia Hurdle in 1963, they broke the mold. It was an unusual mold, to be sure. And if you knew her and are reading this don’t deny that you’re nodding your head in agreement. But if we could have more Fredia Hurdles this world would be a better place, a much better place, in every way. There aren’t many people we are fortunate enough to know who can honestly be called beautiful people; kind, considerate and funny, but Fredia was elite.
Many people have joked that Fredia is the life of every party. Let’s be clear; that’s not a joke. Sometimes she was the party. She’d blow in like a hurricane. Her gregariousness, love of life and rosy outlook made her a natural party girl. But, hey, that’s not such a bad thing. One of Fredia’s enduring qualities was making people smile and feel good about themselves. We could use a bit more of that.
I first met Fredia years ago. She was the partner of Lynn Hurdle, a nurse who worked with my wife, Kathy. Fredia was one of the dozens of spouses who came to our home for the annual office holiday party. I don’t recall how or why or any details, but the bond between us was instant. One year she even loudly joked, so that many people heard, that the jeans I was wearing made my ass look so good it could turn a lesbian straight. While I wanted to crawl in a hole, and my wife ribs me about it to this day, Fredia fondly recalled that night every time she saw me in jeans. She always knew if it was the same pair of jeans or not. It made me, and a lot of other people, laugh.
In the Spring of 2013, the ACLU began looking for gay and lesbian couples who might be good candidates to become plaintiffs in a lawsuit to challenge Pennsylvania’s ban on same-sex marriage. A few years back, Lynn and Fredia invited us to their wedding (though, sadly, not one that made them lawfully married, but we were trying to change that). It was probably the most fun wedding we’ve ever attended. The wedding procession actually danced down the aisle of the church in beautiful harmony to the sounds of a funky beat, Lynn, resplendent in her white gown, and Fredia, stunning in black tuxedo. This was a couple I wanted for the lawsuit. As I would soon learn, this was not only a beautiful couple who exemplified the injustice of a marriage ban, but the couple everyone would want living next door.
In May 2013, we met at a nearby bar for me to formally consider them to be plaintiffs. They had a great get-together story, which a reporter later dubbed “dating by Greyhound.” Lynn had been on a trip from Meadville to Pittsburgh and the driver, who turned out to be Fredia, was new to the route and needed help with directions. Lynn volunteered. Depending on which one of them told the story, Lynn either was or was not responsible for getting them lost. But in either rendition, their affection for each other was obvious and genuine. They both laughed and that radiant, watery-eyed look people get when they are filled with joy alighted on each of them. By inviting them to be considered for the lawsuit, I’d sensed they’d be good models to show the world why same-sex couples should be treated like everyone else, but the evening probing deep views on love, romance, marriage and family, and their beautiful shared history, sealed the deal.
The evening also produced a classic Fredia moment. Fredia had been eyeing a man who sat down at the table across from us with his teenage son. Let’s just say the man was pretty buff, which Fredia was noting for us. Suddenly, she excused herself and walked over to the adjoining table, rubbed the man’s arms and told him how sexy they were. From the mortified look on his face I was worried that he was going to kill her. But the next thing I know the three of them are joking and laughing. A half hour later when the pair left they yelled out, bye Fredia, like old friends. Two more unsuspecting people had been touched by hurricane Fredia’s magic.
Being a plaintiff in the ACLU’s marriage case, Whitewood v. Wolf, revealed another side of this woman, whom I had come to call a friend. The lawyers worried, me included, whether we could keep her focused and serious long enough for a deposition, or to testify at trial. We need not have worried. The deep discussions about love and relationships and fairness brought out a keen insight. Fredia thoughtfully reflected on how when she was born in Virginia a white person couldn’t marry a black person, and how it was her home state that several years later produced the groundbreaking Supreme Court case of Loving v. Virginia, which declared miscegenation unconstitutional. Fredia noted the ridiculousness of the fact that she, as a black woman, could marry Lynn, a white person, but they couldn’t marry because they were of the same sex. Fredia often became indignant at the unfairness of it.
Fredia also opened up about the difficulties of not only being a lesbian, but being a black lesbian in an interracial relationship. She told stories of slights and slurs, yet never showed any ill will toward the bigots. She and Lynn had opened their homes to people in distress, taking in countless relatives’ kids, foster children and even helpless senior citizens. Fredia fondly observed that she didn’t want Lynn and her to be known as the lesbian couple, or the interracial lesbian couple, but simply the nice couple on the corner that’s always there with a smile, a helping hand and even a welcoming home.
Fredia was too young and too wonderful to leave this world, but leave us she did this past week. Tragically, at age 50, Fredia Hurdle died of a massive stroke on Thursday. Ashley, Lynn’s daughter who Fredia helped raise from age 2, is set to get married in a few weeks. Sure, Fredia was the party girl who made everyone laugh, but too few people in life make it their mission to cheer others up. Fredia was also one of those few people who chose to see the good in everyone, always remembering and inquiring about problems they may have shared in the past, and generous with encouragement and a kind word. Inside that vortex was a gentle and tender soul. Fredia was a hurricane, but instead of leaving a path of death and destruction she left a wake of joy, good will and affection. Anyone lucky enough to have encountered this dynamo of a woman is better for it, and the world is surely a better place having been graced by Fredia Hurdle.
Lynn and Ashley, my heart goes out to you.
Thank goodness the aftereffects of hurricane Fredia will be with us for a long time.
With much love,