7.27.17 Founder’s Forum: Remembering Billy Manes

7.27.17 Founder’s Forum: Remembering Billy Manes

Tom Dyer Watermark gay

Billy Manes wore sweaters on the hottest summer days, often with a scarf and beret. He was quirky in that and so many other ways.

With his gangly body and loose-limbed walk, and that shock of peroxide blonde hair, he was like an elfin Muppet. Strange in a stylish and wonderfully appealing way. Disarmingly honest. Transparently vulnerable. Self-effacing to a fault. But also passionate and courageous when moved by injustice.

Billy had a way of expressing himself, verbally and in writing, that was brilliant and uniquely his own; a captivating stream-of-consciousness that made you want to camp out inside his mind. The Orlando Weekly recognized and cultivated that talent, and he made a name for himself as their featured columnist.

Billy was Watermark’s editor for the past two years. Like the rest of the community, we were shocked by news of his sudden illness and death, as unexpected as a body blow from behind. As Watermark’s founder and the person who hired Billy, I asked publisher Rick Claggett for the opportunity to share my feelings in this space.

I sold Watermark a year-and-a-half ago; I hadn’t worked directly with Billy since. But we were office neighbors, and I saw him almost every workday. I don’t recall the origins, but we would greet each other in an affected voice that was kind of a cross between Snagglepuss and W.C. Fields. “Billy,” I’d say with a mock tip of the hat. “Tom,” he’d reply with good-natured formality, “How are you this fine day?”

I loved peeking into his office, which was quirky – there’s that word again – in a spare and eccentric way. Billy’s devoted husband, Tony, often brought him bouquets of long-stemmed red roses. When they wilted and dried, Billy placed them conspicuously throughout his office. Over time it came to look like a Tim Burton movie set, which seemed perfect to me.

As Watermark’s editor, Billy had a difficult job, with different responsibilities and less staff support than at the Orlando Weekly. He arrived on the heels of the momentous Supreme Court opinion legalizing marriage equality, and he helmed our full-throated coverage of that landmark decision. A year later he found himself in the vortex of an unprecedented nightmare.

Pulse thrust Billy into the international spotlight, where he became Orlando’s anguished conscience for an unspeakable tragedy. He and Commissioner Patty Sheehan did dozens of interviews at all hours of the day and night, exposing their wounded hearts and their faith that love triumphs over hate.

Watermark’s heartsick staff responded to Pulse with comprehensive coverage that offered hopeful perspective to our reeling community. With his focused advocacy, Billy sought to prevent the murders from being mischaracterized and exploited.

“There is a press camp outside of Pulse right now,” Billy wrote in Watermark. “I spent the better part of yesterday in the sweltering heat being pulled from microphone to microphone…. This is not anything that this community should have to endure. This is not human.”

My office sat between Billy’s office and his parked car. For weeks I watched him come and go, always with an anguished but purposeful expression on his face. When I’d inquire, Billy told me he was having difficulty sleeping, processing, recovering.

But he soldiered on, and soon a year had passed since Pulse. A counselor friend told me that first anniversaries are uniquely difficult for trauma survivors, and I think that was the case for Billy. He inhabited that tragedy with unflinching sensitivity.

Billy’s tenure at Watermark ended just before he died. Everyone at the newspaper is haunted by this circumstance. The particulars of his employment, like the details of his death, are confidential. Billy never told us he was ill. We just knew he was no longer thriving. With his enormous talent, I felt certain he would regroup in a position in which he could flourish, and perhaps heal.

Billy’s sudden death was so shocking, and the pain felt by family and friends so profound, that many stretched for an explanation, particularly on social media. With my input, Watermark’s attempts to weigh in proved awkward and unhelpful. We struggled to find words that offer clarity and comfort in an extraordinarily difficult circumstance. After a half-dozen rewrites of this column, I’m convinced they don’t exist.

For this reason, and out of respect for the wishes of Billy’s family, Watermark’s reporting on his death will be limited. It does not reflect our appreciation for his incalculable contributions.

Billy wrote this on the anniversary of Pulse:

“Friends, like the friends who carried the injured out of the club, are indispensable mirrors, reflections reminding us who we are inside.”

Billy’s radiant reflection will be polished by a large and devoted following. His spirit will remain alive. It’s what we’ve got. And it’s a lot.

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