In the decades after her son came out as a gay man, J. Eileen Durgin-Clinchard fought for LGBTQ equality.
She hung the rainbow flag in front of her old house in the heart of Lincoln. She protested and testified, counseled and comforted, educated and implored.
Early Monday morning, the first president of the city’s PFLAG chapter died from complications of pneumonia. She was 88.
Durgin-Clinchard grew up with a progressive and open-minded father, said her daughter, LauraLee Woodruff. “He really taught her to be open to all people.”
And she was.
When her oldest son KC told her he was gay in the late '70s, she discovered a group called PFLAG — Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays — and helped it find a permanent home at the Unitarian Church.
When KC’s longtime partner — her “son-in-love” — was dying of AIDS, the mother flew to California to help her son care for him. And when he died, she fought for KC to be legally recognized on his death certificate.
The injustice of his love not being counted fueled her commitment further.
She ran a 24-hour AIDS Hotline from her home. She became an ACLU board member. She wrote articles on sexuality and civil rights and worked with PFLAG to get educational materials in libraries across Nebraska.
She saw society’s attitudes change.
“There is much more freedom to talk about it,” she told the Journal Star when the Supreme Court recognized gay marriage in 2015. “Then, it was such a secret, and if you can’t talk about it, well, it must be really bad.”
Durgin-Clinchard moved to Lincoln in the early '80s to work on her doctorate. She’d been raised in a Navy family and married a Navy man, moving 54 times before she settled in for good.
“She had doctoral students from all over the world as her tenants,” Woodruff said. “And she had couch surfers as late as last month.”
It was her way. Engaging with people, learning from them, sharing her own wide worldview.
She loved opera and film, requesting her wake be held at the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center.
She loved to write and helped start a writers group. She volunteered at Bryan Health and the Lied Center for Performing Arts. She worked every election day.
Early in her career, Durgin-Clinchard taught school and worked as a speech pathologist. In Lincoln, she spent 10 years at the Anti-Defamation League teaching its World of Difference curriculum. She insisted there be material on homophobia, her daughter said.
And there was.
“She wrote it.”
In the last decade, Durgin-Clinchard became a voice for the Unitarian Universalist’s Justice in the Middle East committee, spending time in the West Bank and Gaza and forging lasting friendships.
“That was just her,” Woodruff said. “She was always active, always doing something.”
Life got harder in the last year. Durgin-Clinchard had a form of Parkinson’s and had to give up driving. Speaking and using her hands became more difficult, but she continued to be engaged with the world.
“She was never afraid or ashamed to stand up,” said Karla Cooper, a fellow activist and friend. “If anyone ever lived her life’s mission, she did. To the fullest.”
Durgin-Clinchard was gracious and thoughtful, too.
Once, Cooper mentioned how much she liked cornbread; Durgin-Clinchard said she’d never made it.
Soon Cooper had an invitation for dinner and there was cornbread on the table. Homemade.
“The way she embraced others was the way she lived her life,” Cooper said.
When she entered hospice this spring, Durgin-Clinchard worked to gather her poems and scraps of writing for a book, said her son, Calvin Clinchard. And she worked to find someone to carry on her Middle East work.
“Her involvement in everything was one of the best things about her when she was with us,” Clinchard said. “And now it’s one of the hardest things about losing her. You can feel her presence everywhere.”
Durgin-Clinchard is survived by three children, Woodruff, Daniel Clinchard and Calvin Clinchard, five grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. Her son, KC Chase-Lambert, died in 1999.