Sister Merry Peter of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence remembers the December day clearly. In her role as Mistress of Missions with the Sisters' San Francisco house, Peter had been helping a group in Eureka form a new convent that would be known as the Abbey of the Big Red Wood — helping them find their mission, create bylaws, a board and a governing structure, as well as register as a 501(c)(3) charity. It had been hard but rewarding work and, on this day one of the Eureka Sisters, John Edward Hudson — or Sister Saturnalia as he would be known among Sisters — had invited her to a potluck at his small, two-bedroom Craftsman-style home on Myrtle Avenue to witness one of the most Humboldt of local traditions — the Eureka Trucker's Parade.
Thinking she was attending a Sisters' gathering, Peter donned the full regalia — the white face makeup splashed with whimsical color, the heels, the sparkling jewels and the flowing coronet.
"I came as a Sister," Peter recalls with a laugh, adding that she was stunned walking into Hudson's home in rural Humboldt County to find it filled with just about every type of person from every background. "There were bikers. I thought, 'People are going to kill me. I'm going to die.' Then Saturnalia makes the introductions and suddenly I'm sitting there talking to bikers. And it's fine."
Hudson, Peter learned that day, meant many things to many people. Depending on who you asked, John Hudson was the Purple Heart veteran and the drag queen. The loud, proud gay man and the green-thumbed gardener who loved smoking weed and spending time with his dog. He was the adoring, doting son and the beloved brother and the wild friend whose laugh was infectious. In the same room, he could be the captivating storyteller and the intent listener who made those around him glow. He was the HIV-positive patient, the advocate and the devoted caretaker. He was the man with the open heart and the big, gap-toothed smile, and the guy with the cutting wit who could wither you with a comment. The polite southern black man and the rural Northern California activist. He was both the trail blazer and the wise elder who answered life's challenges with a home-cooked meal, friends and a conversation about how to help.
Indeed, ask those around Hudson what he was about and you'll get dozens of answers. But ask them what made him truly special and a theme quickly emerges: John Hudson was grateful for life, he believed in you and he wanted to take care of you because he knew that, together, you could make the world a better place. And he did it with joy.
"I dare you to put that in a box," Merry Peter challenges. "You can't."
"I loved him immediately," Peter continues. "John, or Sister Saturnalia as I knew him, is just a person with a joyful, generous heart who had been through a lot of pain and suffering, but it had not left him bitter. It had left him more open, more engaged and more loving. ... He was just a natural light. He was always his own person — flamboyant, stylish, fabulous. He never apologized for who he was. He had this fabulous sense of his own freedom and was very helpful in helping other people find theirs."
On the morning of Aug. 15, with family members by his side, Hudson died at his Eureka home at the age of 74, some 37 years after he was diagnosed as HIV positive. A giant — a man who dedicated himself to connecting with people, fighting for justice and bettering his communities — had fallen among the redwoods, as Peter would later write in a Facebook post announcing Hudson's death.
Born the second-oldest of nine children to Robert G. Hudson and Johnnie Mae Harrison in Gainesville, Georgia, on May 5, 1944, Hudson and his family relocated to Cleveland, Ohio, when he was 10. At John Adams High School, Hudson became known for his unique style — seersucker trousers, stiffly starched shirts and high-heeled boots were mainstays, according to his obituary — and he was often teased and ridiculed. It never seemed to phase him.
Hudson was drafted into the U.S. Army shortly after his 21st birthday and deployed with the First Air Calvary Division to Vietnam, where he served as a line company medic to care for wounded soldiers and accompany them on transports from the front lines. A gunshot wound to the leg earned Hudson the Purple Heart and effectively ended his time in the service, which also saw him earn decorations for marksmanship and bravery.
"He was called into the service," Peter says, "but he didn't go to kill people. He went to save people."
A few years after his honorable discharge, Hudson moved to Philadelphia, where he worked at Temple University Hospital. When his younger sister Sandra graduated from high school, she followed him there and he took her in under his roof. Sandra would follow her brother again a handful of years later, this time west to San Francisco, where Hudson enrolled in the San Francisco Culinary Academy and later ran a number of restaurant kitchens.
But Hudson's life would be forever altered in 1981 when he was diagnosed as HIV positive. At that time, being diagnosed with the virus that causes AIDS was considered fatal — the prognosis was a few years, if you were lucky, but more likely a matter of months. From the first diagnosis in the early 1980s, the virus' impact was devastating in San Francisco, with thousands of new cases annually and an almost corresponding number of deaths until treatments improved and outcomes bettered in the mid 1990s. And in the city's tight-knit, openly gay community, it was like a plague.
"Every single day, he was losing people," Michael Weiss, a close friend of Hudson's, says of the time period.
John Heckel, another of Hudson's close friends, says the time period would shape the rest of his life.
"He saw a lot of people close to him die, watched a lot of his closest friends die, which created a special relationship with death and dying," Heckel says.
In 1993, his health failing, Hudson moved to Eureka, where a couple of acquaintances had relocated from the city.
"He came up here to die," Weiss says. But instead, he thrived.
Betty Boyd, now 92, also came to Humboldt County in 1993 after about a decade of working with AIDS patients in the Bay Area. Boyd came to know Hudson through the North Coast AIDS Project — noticing how he was always quick to lend a helping hand — and the two southern transplants born a couple of decades apart quickly grew close.
"John was just a person who really did as much as he possibly could for other people," she says, her voice trailing off slightly. "He has that wonderful laugh, that wonderful, big laugh. You could hear him 10 miles away. He just truly, truly loved people. He was like my brother."
But there was also a fire to Hudson, Boyd says. Early on in his time here, Boyd says Hudson became frustrated in an HIV support group. In addition to regular meetings, the group would sometimes get together for holiday parties or other occasions but, due to confidentiality concerns, only group members were allowed, meaning folks had to leave partners, loved ones and support networks at home if they wanted to attend.
"He kept complaining and complaining about it," Boyd said. "He was just really furious."
In response, Hudson launched what he called "bridge parties," massive potlucks to which he invited everyone in the support group and encouraged them to bring whomever they pleased. At first, he hosted the parties at his home but they soon came to be held all over. This was at a time, Boyd says, when the stigmas surrounding HIV and AIDS were still so severe that one local doctor refused to let AIDS patients into his office and, instead, spoke to them from the doorway. Creating a space where HIV and AIDS patients could gather with their support networks and co-mingle was groundbreaking.
"He was extremely out about (his status) and used that to make change in the community," Weiss says. "He was all about inclusion. It was really important to him to create inclusive spaces — places where people could express themselves without feeling policed."
Hudson was living in Arcata at the time and frequented the Saturday farmers markets, where he quickly befriended a host of local farmers. "His laughter was so infectious and so loud and so beautiful, he caught people's attention and they were drawn to him like magnets," Weiss explains.
Having realized that many people in his support groups were food insecure, and knowing that good nutrition is a central component strengthening one's immune system, making it integral for HIV and AIDS patients, Hudson soon started the first-of-its-kind AIDS Food Project. As the Saturday markets would draw to a close, volunteers would make the rounds, soliciting donations of leftover produce from the farmers, which would then be sorted, bagged and delivered to local HIV and AIDS patients. Hudson would also personally prepare meals for people in especially frail health. (Decades later, the food project continues, though it is now run through Open Door Community Health Center on a larger scale.)
In 1998, Heckel was directing a production of the Pulitzer prize-winning play Angels in America at Humboldt State University but was having some trouble putting together the cast. He needed a black actor to play one of the leads and was also concerned that he didn't have anyone in the cast who was openly gay or HIV positive.
"Somebody said, 'Go talk to Hudson,'" Heckel recalls.
When the two got together, Hudson told the director that he'd never acted and had trouble with memorization, so he didn't think he would be a good fit. After the two men spoke for a couple hours, Hudson agreed to take the part and a decades-long friendship was born.
Heckel soon came to marvel at Hudson's openness and the effect it had on people.
"There wasn't any fear," he says. "He would meet people and engage people in conversation in a way that was just fearless. There were no screens, no hiding. He was just absolutely present."
Weiss says he was similarly struck by these qualities when he came to know Hudson after moving to Humboldt County in 2003. In 2005, a group Weiss and his partner, Todd Larsen, founded named Queer Humboldt hosted a bingo night fundraiser — dubbed "Bingo with a Twist" — and invited the Russian River Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence to attend. It was a raging success and inspired Weiss, Hudson and others to pursue forming a local convent.
Peter says there are a lot of misconceptions about the Sisters and what they are about. First and foremost, she says the Sisters aim to "rid the world of guilt and shame, and to make more room for joy." But it's also a vocation, she says, an order of people who take lifetime vows to serve their communities. The whimsical costumes aren't about poking fun at nuns or hiding behind a caricature of homosexuality, they are about "amplifying the volume of everything about you" and celebrating it while inviting others to do the same.
Hudson got that, Peter says, and when it came time to choose his sister name, he chose Saturnalia, which was an ancient Roman festival held each December that overturned social norms, with masters providing table service for their slaves, among other things. The Eureka group flourished and would go on to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars at bingo nights, the annual Bat N' Rouge softball game and other fundraisers for a swath of local charities, from trails to youth groups to medical funds.
The Eureka Abbey also blazed new ground for the larger Sisters network, whose ranks had to that point almost exclusively been filled by gay men. The Eureka chapter was more inclusive, gender fluid and orientation diverse, Peter says, adding that the Sisters are now welcoming of "everything under the sun."
While Hudson has left an indelible mark on Humboldt County, having helped make it a more supportive and welcoming place, there was one quality about him that seemed universally cherished among those who knew him best. He was always present in the moment, looking to wring all he could out of it.
Heckel recalls hosting a dinner party that Hudson attended shortly after Heckel had moved his 85-year-old mother into a mother-in-law unit on his property. Heckel's mother, who moved out to Humboldt from Chicago after her husband died, was a German native and didn't speak much English. Heckel says he doesn't think his mother had ever met an African American, nor an openly gay man. He asked Hudson to go down to her place and help her up to his for dinner, and the moment sparked a deep friendship that bridged all divides. When Heckel would travel out of town for school, it was Hudson who would come care for his mom, cooking her meals and planting roses in her garden. For her 90th birthday, Hudson brought some of the Sisters over and they posed for pictures with her. "She loved it," Heckel says. "She was in second heaven." In 2008, a woman Heckel had known to use politically inappropriate terms in her native German in reference to African Americans and had never cast a ballot in a U.S. election, voted for Barack Obama. Heckel says it was because of Hudson.
Boyd remembers how Hudson cared for his own mother after she came to live with him in her final years, and how the two would spend entire afternoons at the movie theater, taking in one picture after another. "No one could love their mother more than John," she says, adding that Hudson enlisted her to take his mom to church on Sundays.
Weiss recalls it acutely in Hudson's last years, when the toll of decades of pharmaceutical cocktails to bolster his immune system caused his kidneys to fail and he was on dialysis. "Most of the time he was positive but he was very sick and sometimes he would talk about the pain," Weiss says. "Then he'd say, 'I'm complaining. There are others worse than me.'" But even in pain and physically compromised, Hudson would still put on his face as a Sister sometimes and come to an event, where he'd just sit and talk to people, connecting with them.
Peter says she thinks Hudson learned his way of being uniquely present — how to make somebody feel welcomed and accepted and hugged, all at once — in Vietnam, when he'd sit with wounded soldiers, hold their hands and assure them it would be OK. It's this trait that emanated from everything he did.
"Saturnalia was a natural community activist," she says. "He always found common ground with people and ways to get them to work together on a common problem. Saturnalia just talked about down home community. You want to get something done, you put on a pot of fried chicken and greens, give everyone a ginger snap cookie with a little pot in it and, about an hour after you sit down, you start talking."
Peter's voice catches with emotion. Maybe it was also Hudson's southern roots coupled with all that death he endured in San Francisco.
"He was always trying to live every day more deeply than the day before," she says. "He was not a saint in that sort of sanitized way. He was humble and honest about his flaws but he lived with a kind of transparency that was infectious. He called your bullshit before he opened the door and confessed his before shaking hands. He made room for people to live with freedom. He was a liberator."
Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.