Kamilah Kashanie (KK): On this season of the StoryCorps podcast from NPR… we’re exploring how people deal with one of the only constants in life… that things change. From historical shifts… to personal transformations… we’re bringing you stories of how people cope when their lives are in flux… while highlighting the lessons they’ve learned along the way.
If you’re a regular listener… you may not recognize my voice. That’s because we’ve changed things up too. I’m your new host… Kamilah Kashanie. Don’t worry, Jasmyn and Sylvie are still on the team, just on a different side of the mic. But enough about us…
On today’s episode, we’ll hear from 90-year-old Kenneth Felts… a man who spent most of his life living with a secret. But a few months into the pandemic… Ken decided it was time to open up. Here he is talking with his daughter, Rebecca.
Kenneth Felts (KF): On March 13th we all went under quarantine. And being alone drug up all these memories from the past.
Rebecca Mayes (RM): One night you told me you were sad because you had lost the love of your life.
KF: And that’s when I came out to you.
RM: What do you remember about him?
KF: When I met Phillip, to me he was the perfect person. Of course, I guess that’s what everyone thinks of their first love. We just kind of blended into each other.
But one Sunday, we went to his church because he sang in the choir. I sat in the pews and it occurred to me that I was sitting in a place that condemned our behavior. I had to make a decision, and I made the wrong decision.
And It was not until I got the divorce from your mother, first thing I did was go through all the phone books, trying to find Phillip, but I was unable to find him.
RM: I remember this day when I was in high school. You had gotten all dressed to work in the garden but you just sat crying for a while. You know, I asked you what was wrong, and you said something about, ”Oh, just stuff in the past that doesn’t matter anymore.”
Do you remember what you were crying about?
KF: Having left Phillip. He died a couple years ago. I just wished we had found him sooner.
RM: If we had found out that Phillip was alive, what do you think you would have said?
KF: I would have apologized for the decision I made.
RM: My guess would be that he forgave you long ago, and I just wish you could forgive yourself.
Would you entertain having a boyfriend?
KF: Oh absolutely. Hopefully they will consider my age as only a number and not a date for the undertaker.
RM: [laughs] What do you think it’s important for me to know and do as I go through the rest of my life?
KF: Being yourself. Not hiding as I have. Because I have found out how much love there is out there that just keeps pouring into me day after day. And I thought I was doing great, until I came out and started to discover what it means to be free.
KK: You may have heard that conversation earlier this year on our NPR broadcast… but there was more to their recording. Let’s listen…
KF: Before I ever came out, did you ever wonder about me being gay? Did you ever think of that?
RM: I feel like it’s been a question for me for a long time. All I knew was that you never seemed totally comfortable with yourself. But it was still a little bit of a surprise when you finally confirmed it.
RM: Do you remember what you thought when I came out?
KF: Yes, I thought you were making a big mistake. I didn’t think you knew what you were getting yourself into. But you were stronger than me, and it’s been great ever since.
RM: When I came out to you, I was worried but I didn’t really think you would disown me or anything. I knew there was a chance, but you’ve always made it very clear how important I was to you and how much you loved me.
KF: We’ve adjusted well, I think.
RM: Yeah. You have a lot of people you kind of hold at arm’s length, but over the years you have definitely let Tracie in.
What was it like for you to be in our wedding?
KF: Oh, I thought that was really, really nice.
RM: And what did you think when we told you we were going to have kids?
KF: I had, uh, questions about that at first, two lesbians, how are you going to have kids? Then you resolved it very nicely and let me know and kept me informed. And it was some of the most exciting days of my life, to hold those two kids in my arms after they were born.
RM: I loved seeing that. You had never really mentioned me having kids, so I didn’t know if you wanted to be a grandfather.
KF: Oh, yeah. Children just jump right into your heart and take over. Makes life worthwhile, along with you.
RM: I hope you know how much I appreciate you. Thank you for always making me your priority.
KF: That means a… that means a lot to me to hear that. Thank you so much. I love you, honey. No matter what, I love you. I’m trying to be fully engaged in what’s left of my life, being a out gay person and I know you’re going to support me when I’m really acting wild now.
RM: (Laughs) That’s right. I love you, too.
KK: That’s Rebecca Mayes speaking with her dad, Ken Felts in 2020. After the break… how another person in Ken’s life helped him stay afloat… literally… his aqua aerobics instructor…
David Smith (DS): Now, when you saw me in my little red Speedo, did you know that I was gay or were you just like, oh, who is this guy coming to teach?
KK: Welcome back…
We’re gonna rewind a bit… to before Ken came out to his daughter.
And here’s something else you should know — Ken loves to exercise. He’d been taking classes at his local rec center for years. But in 2013… a new water aerobics instructor came on the scene…
KF: I recollect that it was a group of us old ladies and men in that pool and we were all in the water waiting, then out popped this cute young man in a tight red Speedo. He stopped right in front of us. And there he was in all of his glory right there.
KK: The man he’s talking about is David Smith… after that first class he went on to become Ken’s personal trainer. During that time, Ken wasn’t out, but in case you missed what David said earlier, he was… and Ken admired that about him.
KF: I was secretly really envying you to be able to be yourself. Because here was a guy that really knew what life was all about and he was living it. And I guess that’s why I wanted to get close to you.
DS: You asked me, like, a lot of questions about my life. But I knew that you were not comfortable talking about your past.
KF: I wanted to talk to you about that, but I just couldn’t get myself to loosen up.
DS: I think you actually asked me what’s happening with, you know, my friends and people I’m dating and so I knew that you’re curious, and that’s when I started to kind of piece the puzzles together.
KF: Most of my gay I had buried very deep and it wasn’t available at that time, even to me. I must have given you some hints, but we never really talked about it.
DS: I didn’t want to kind of put you on the defense, but I wanted to help you learn more about who I was by us going to the kind of places that I enjoyed going to.
DS: Do you remember the first time that we went to Hamburger Mary’s, Ken? It’s, like kind of, a fifties diner, but, like, with drag queens.
KF: I remember well. I was very nervous. I’d never been in any of the gay establishments along that street or any street for that matter. And I was afraid somebody might be hitting on me and I wouldn’t know what to do. (Laughs)
DS: I know you were nervous, kind of, before, but afterwards how did you feel?
KF: I kind of felt good, in that I had successfully ventured into another world and I felt gratitude to you for having done it; because I knew I couldn’t do it on my own.
DS: That’s when, you know, we kinda got close and started really chatting more.
KF: While we were talking you had suggested that, “Why don’t you write your story; I think people would be interested in it.” And in writing that story is when the old past began to surface.
DS: I knew that you were struggling a little bit with the memories and the emotions of it. But when you came out, you know, I thought that was really powerful. Everybody fights their own battles, you know, and everybody kind of has their own mountains to climb.
And I think that’s the biggest lesson that you taught me because I’ve seen you do it physically, obviously, when we were doing personal training. But socially and emotionally, right? And you finding the strength to reveal those secrets that have been a big part of your life for all these years.
KF: Yeah, I appreciate you’re saying that. And David, I think you may know that you’re really my rock.
DS: You’re probably one of the strongest friendships I’ve ever had.
KF: I get emotional when I think of our friendship. But it was very meaningful to me and still is and will always be.
KK: That’s Ken Felts speaking with his friend David Smith.
And finally, we wanted to catch up with Ken to see how things are going… especially now that he’s the most eligible bachelor in Colorado… So we set up a video call… using StoryCorps Connect…
KK: The last time you sat down with StoryCorps, you had a pretty emotional conversation with your daughter. Did you think when you had that conversation that it would end up like being on the radio?
KF: No, I really didn’t. I never thought anybody would be interested in an old 90-year-old climbing out of the closet.
KF: It’s just been such a pleasant response from everybody: hugs and kisses and messages of congratulation. They also talk to me about the fact that based on my talk, they decided they would come out and they have.
KK: How does that feel to know that you inspired people to then tell their own story?
KF: It just makes me feel good to know that people can start being their own self; just what they were meant to be in the first place. I couldn’t ask for anything better.
After I came out, my dream would be to find somebody now who is willing to share my life with me. And guess what; I did.
KK: [squeals] Are you telling me that you’re dating?
KF: I am dating. We are together all the time. And, uh, his name is John… you want to see a picture of him?
KK: Oh, he’s so cute. (Laughs)
KF: Well, you aren’t kidding, he’s cute!
KK: How did you meet this person, like, how did this happen?
KF: He wrote to me and said, ”I’d like to, uh, talk to you sometime.” So, uh, I called the Namiko’s Japanese restaurant and we met there with our masks on. We ordered, and when the salad finally came, we unmasked. And that was a little ceremony we had to see each other for the first time.
KF: And I guess we were both impressed. We had dinner and we’ve been seeing each other frequently since.
KK: What’s one of your favorite things about John?
KF: His smile. He’s got a beautiful smile and beautiful dark eyes and eyelashes that are just out of this world. Ah… I just love his face.
KF: And he’s a great, a great kisser. Yeah, I told you, I’m free, I’m out, I’m here, I’m living it up.
KK: You’re living your best life, living your life like it’s golden.
KK: [laughs] It’s a song, it’s a Jill Scott song, Living Your Life Like It’s Golden.
KF: Oh, OK. All right. I am, I am.
KK: I’m so excited for your new relationship.
KF: You can’t be any more excited than I am.
KK: You’re very right. [laughs]
KK: That’s all for this episode of the StoryCorps podcast.
It was produced by Sylvie Lubow and edited by Jud Esty-Kendall. Our technical director is Jarrett Floyd, who also composed our theme song. Our fact-checker is Natsumi Ajisaka. Special thanks to StoryCorps producer Jey Born. I’m your host Kamilah Kashanie.
To find out how to record your own interview with a loved one, go to storycorps dot org. While you’re there… you can also see what music we used in this episode… along with original artwork created by Lindsay Mound.
Thanks for listening to the StoryCorps podcast. Catch you next week…