Signage Sought for Gay Man’s Meadow
Visitors to Corona Heights Park, a hilltop open space straddling San Francisco’s gay Castro district and its famous Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, on Saturday mornings back in the late 1970s and early 1980s were likely to encounter a man seated on a bench with legal notepad in hand.
It was a weekly ritual for the late Bill Kraus, a gay man and congressional aide who played a key role in transforming the city’s growing LGBT population into a political force. A Midwest transplant himself, Kraus helped elect Harvey Milk as the city’s first out supervisor in 1977.
He went on to work for gay Supervisor Harry Britt and later Democratic Congress members Phillip and Sala Burton. Much of his strategizing on behalf of his bosses’ political agendas took place on that park bench, recalled Ron Huberman, who was housemates with Kraus.
He and the late Dick Pabich, another up-and-coming gay politico, would join their close friend each week at the park.
"We had a routine: almost every weekend we would meet for coffee, in those days at Cafe Flore, then go up to Corona Heights Park where Bill and Dick would brainstorm on political ideas," recalled Huberman, who recently retired as an investigator with the district attorney’s office. "Phil made Bill his congressional administrative aide, and in the meadow, he wrote most of Phil’s speeches."
Kraus was instrumental in the local efforts to defeat the anti-gay Briggs initiative in 1978. Shortly after Milk’s assassination in November of that year, Kraus was elected president of the progressive Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club, renamed in honor of the slain gay rights leader.
He urged the Democratic Party to support gay rights as a delegate and platform committee member at the national conventions in 1980 and 1984.
As AIDS began to ravage the city’s gay male population in the early 1980s, Kraus was a vocal proponent for closing the city’s bathhouses and urging safer sex practices. Following his own diagnosis in 1984, Kraus moved to Paris to take part in an experimental AIDS drug study.
His "exile" from the U.S. garnered national media attention about the glacial pace of the drug approval process in America. When the medication he was taking was approved for trials in the states, Kraus returned to San Francisco.
The late gay San Francisco Chronicle reporter Randy Shilts would later chronicle Kraus’s role in the early days of the AIDS epidemic in his book And the Band Played On. (Gay British actor Sir Ian McKellan played Kraus in the 1993 HBO movie based on the book.)
Shortly before Christmas in 2005 Kraus contracted meningitis, according to a news obituary in the Bay Area Reporter . After six days in the hospital, Kraus died on January 11, 1986 at the age of 38.
Immediately following his death, Kraus’s friends sought to rename the mini-park at Noe and Beaver streets, home to a community garden across from Cafe Flore, in his honor. But city policy forbade changing the name from one based geographically.
According to the minutes of the recreation and parks commission’s June 19, 1986 meeting, a committee comprised of representatives for city leaders, parks officials, and neighborhood groups instead proposed naming a meadow and path in Corona Heights Park after Kraus.
The commissioners unanimously adopted the idea, and sometime afterwards, a bench with a plaque honoring Kraus was installed in the park. Today, the plaque has been painted over and there is nothing indicating that the Bill Kraus Meadow and Pathway exists.
The honor may have been lost to time had it not been for schoolteacher John Mehring’s memory being jogged. An acquaintance with Kraus through his own involvement in the Milk club, Mehring turned 60 in February and decided to re-read Shilts’s book.
"In it he said that Bill would often go to Corona park to reflect on his life," said Mehring, who was also diagnosed with AIDS in 1984 and active in the Milk club’s safer-sex initiatives back then.
An Internet search led Mehring to the city’s library stacks to check out Michael T. Roper’s 2001 book Memories of My Gay Brothers . In it Roper writes about how the city had memorialized Kraus by naming a meadow after him.
Mehring then visited the park but could find nothing indicating where the meadow was located. Nor is it labeled on any online maps.
"I asked people, can you tell me where Bill Kraus Meadow is. I talked to people who use the park and none knew about it," said Mehring.
He contacted the parks department, and a staffer was able to locate the old meeting minutes. The meadow in question is a triangular shaped patch of lawn at the park entrance on Museum Way and Roosevelt Way. The pathway begins at that intersection and leads toward a fenced-in, off-lease dog play area.
"There never has been any official signage placed there, as far as I know," said Mehring, who is now pushing for the Kraus meadow and pathway to be clearly labeled.
"This has been going on for years and we really need to bring it to fruition," said Mehring. "It helps us reconnect with Bill in a positive way."
The newly formed Friends of Corona Heights Park has agreed to help with the project. It already had sought grant funding from the SF Parks Alliance to install a bulletin board or kiosk in that section of the park.
The friends group is seeking $2,000 and would need to raise another $3,000 in order to cover the full purchase price and installation costs. The alliance will announce this year’s grant recipients in late May.
"Certain members agreed to move forward together on it," said Gill Sperlein, an attorney and representative of the friends group.
Mehring hopes to see any identifying marker include a brief bio about Kraus and his achievements.
"I want people to know Bill other than just a name," he said. "In Randy’s book is just one portrayal of him. He was so passionate about safe sex. If it wasn’t for him I don’t know what our initial response to the AIDS epidemic would have been. For that reason alone I think we need to do more to remember him."
Huberman said he doesn’t recall ever talking to Kraus about having the meadow named after him, although, "the meadow was very important to him."
After being contacted by Mehring recently, Huberman said he is pleased to see an effort is being made to properly label that segment of the park for his long lost friend.
"All this history we are going to lose as time goes on," said Huberman. "I thought it was a huge deal naming something for a gay man back then."
Anyone interested in assisting with the naming effort should contact Mehring via email at firstname.lastname@example.org