Thoughts on a fitting tribute to John Williams

by Craig Ogan

About 1,100 people gathered in perfect weather on an end-of-May morning at Abravanel Hall in Salt Lake City to say goodbye to John W. Williams. The crowd was a pleasing mix of John’s family, LGBT community, Salt Lake business and government leaders, and many members of what funeral speakers referred to as his “Gastronomy Family.”

It seems fitting for that many people to come to honor John. He was a significant force in the LGBT community, Salt Lake business and government circles and as one of the founders and owners of Gastronomy Inc. a 40-year-old company involved in opening 10 restaurants, restoring buildings in the downtown area and developing real estate assets throughout Salt Lake County.

The service befitted his upbringing in Franklyn and Grace, Idaho with a ceremony based on long-time Mormon funeral ritual. A family prayer offered in the lobby, the mourners filed in to the strains of a “prelude,” family and friends offered reminisces. There were musical “numbers” and it concluded with a sincere, extemporaneous “closing” prayer. Family adjourned to the cemetery for a “dedication of the grave.” No word on funeral potatoes issuing from a Gastronomy kitchen, though.

But this being John Williams, who insisted on a big WOW factor in everything he did, and, according to his niece, believed, “If one was good, ten was better” — the funeral was spectacular.

First the Hall — home of the Utah Symphony with its gold leaf walls and Cyril Harris designed acoustics. There are 18,000 beads of hand-cut Czech and Austrian crystal gracing six chandeliers and a Dale Chihuly 30-foot-tall blown-glass sculpture.

The blonde wood stage was adorned by a 30-foot rainbow floral arrangement behind the podium and the speakers’ chairs were back dropped by 40” deep photos of John at various stages of life. A favorite photo was of John on his return from a summer job in the Idaho forest — bearded, long Rastafarian-like hair and wild eyes.

Funeral speakers included Gary Larsen, conducting; brother David Williams, a “God-Children” oratorical duet; quick memories by 15 or so nieces and nephews (ranging in age of 4 to 15 years old); the eulogy by niece Laura Forsgren. The musical numbers were by Utah Opera’s Brian Stucki singing “The Prayer” and “Danny Boy” accompanied by Carol Anderson on the Symphony’s tuned and polished Steinway.

A fabulously mounted ceremony for a man who “lived a large life.”

Business partner Tom Guinney was the first speaker. His message was that John was a visionary who had respect for all people and things.

“In 40 years John never raised his voice,” said Mr Guinney. He was brief and overcome with emotion and left the stage.

The “Duet of God-Children”, Sky Jensen and Merica May Jensen, recounted life with John as a whirl of activity. Outdoors, indoors, in California, Canada and Europe. He took them to plays, restaurants, on the Concorde — they got to help him live his life, large, and came away infused with John’s abundance mentality.

Little brother, David Williams, recounted travels, family parties and John’s joy in life’s ups and insouciance about life’s downs. He said as a child he rode in a basket on the front of John’s bicycle, David said, “John carried me early and throughout my life.”

It was David who spoke movingly about John’s early and deep commitment to the LGBT community. He told of HRC honors but was most moved as he discussed how John influenced his family and their attitude and commitment to LGBT progress.

Summing up the morning, Gary Larsen waxed religious about John’s charity.

“Sharing was his hallmark,” said Larsen, “Charity came naturally to John.”

There was a moment in David’s speech when he had to compose himself. Maybe 30 seconds. The audience was silent, not a cough, not a stir. Collectively, the congregation was as moved as David, caught in the happy memories of their friend John, still not comprehending why he died.

John passed away from injuries sustained during a fire at his home on Salt Lake City’s Capitol Hill two weeks previous to the service. The house is still a crime scene, the death under investigation. John’s estranged spouse is in Salt Lake County Jail under suspicion of arson and murder.

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