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Obituary: Peter Taylor, 1953 - 2013

Sun 15 Sep 2013 In: Hall of Fame View at Wayback View at NDHA

Obituary: Peter Taylor. (1953 - 2013) Peter Taylor will be remembered for setting a positive example of how to deal with debilitating illness and inevitable death, and for celebrating life with good cheer and determination. Growing up on a dairy farm near Whangarei, and a middle class family Peter Taylor's childhood was not always perfect and was occasionally difficult. Labelled a 'softie', he was not interested in the conventional boys' interests such as cars and bikes. His parents divorced when he was thirteen, and as the oldest of the three children he was responsible for looking after the family including his two younger sisters. "Peter has a good sense of responsibilities", says one sister, Yvonne Godfrey. "Peter was amazingly protective of me and Katie, and the most wonderful and protective brother from an early age." Taylor and Yvonne moved to another farm with their father. Peter at two and a half years old. Living on a farm allowed Taylor to find and developed his interest in horses, which would later see him become an international equestrian rider, coach, trainer and manager. He even had a riding uniform before he actually owning a horse. He used to run behind horses, Yvonne recalls, because he loved them so much. His parents bought Taylor his first pony, named Prince. His love for horses allowed him to temporarily escape from the difficult family relationship, and he seemed achieve a sense of peace and serenity when he was riding. In Taylor's teenage years his kind and friendly nature led him to him befriend people from many walks of life. Like many gay New Zealand men in the 1970s he headed for Sydney. Elaine Saunders, whom he met 42 years ago in a Sydney hospitality school, describes the then young Taylor as "cheeky and mischievous, and he has this weird sense of humour". Saunders also noted at the This Is Your Life tribute two weeks ago that Taylor is a "very special person" to her, and at one stage she even thought Taylor is "going to be the one for me." For now-obvious reasons that was not going to happen. A LASTING INFLUENCE "Peter has been an outstanding and unique friend who has broadened my knowledge and life, teaching me to be grateful and accept life with no surprises about what you get," said Saunders. Getting to know her gay friend changed her originally conservative perspective and thinking, Saunders says, and taught her to love friends as they are. Taylor's ability to transform and to influence people's perspectives on life often left a lasting impression on the people around him. Larry Quickenden, who also met Taylor in that same hospitality school in Sydney suggests one possible explanation of Taylor's drag name Vera could be found in the soothing nature of Aloe Vera, which cures and soothes wounds and injuries. Taylor, Quickenden says, had such a soothing and calming nature. But alongside Taylor's soothing, happy-go-lucky nature, he was also a strong-willed and determined person, as displayed through his career as a successful equestrian rider and coach. He first competed for New Zealand in Holland in the qualifying rounds leading up to the 1980 Moscow Olympics. But when Fez, the horse Taylor competed on, contracted incurable osteomyelitis Taylor had to withdraw three days out from the competition. Fez was put down three weeks after that. "I had to put down my beloved horse and my dream and learn the hard lesson that grief is not a destination but a process," Taylor later recalled. In 1991 Taylor trained and managed the Canadian equestrian gold medalist Nick Holmes-Smith for the Pan America Games. He then worked with the Canadian Olympic three day team, as the stables/ operations manager and was then appointed as ghe team's assistant manager at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. FATE TAKES A HAND Life can make sharp turns without anyone foreseeing or even noticing at the time, and Taylor's life was about to be radically altered by, of all things, one tiny sandfly At the Barcelona Olympics Taylor was unknowingly infected with Visceral Leishmaniasis Donnovanni, a disease transmitted by a type of sandfly. It's a serious illness that usually kills by destroying the bone marrow within twenty months. Combined with his HIV infection it meant that for the rest of his life Taylor was to increasingly spend much of his energy and drive trying to defeat this ferocious tag-team that was attacking him from within. In 1994 Taylor managed and coached the Canadians at the world championships in Holland. Paige Wilde, a former team member of the Canadian equestrian team says Taylor was an "amazing coach and mentor." She says he provided her with "peaceful tranquility" that allowed her to perform and live life to the fullest. Another of Taylor's former team-mates, Lorraine Laframboise, also expressed the fact that Taylor was a good mentor and teacher. "I know you are going to be there for me, as you have always been", said the tearful Laframboise in her recorded video for Taylor during the tribute dinner. Taylor's personal philosophies in coaching the riders had been a vital lesson for the team, she said. "When I was teaching Olympic riders, I wasn't teaching them how to ride... I was teaching them to believe they could win," Taylor once said. "I was teaching them confidence and self-belief... with self-awareness comes power, enormous power. Absolutely beyond what you would normally be able to do... and that just comes from life experience, self-examination, education and self-critique", Taylor's broad experience and skills developed from the equestrian field also saw him taking up the position as the executive director at the Auckland International Three Day event in 1993, and he then went on to stage the Manukau Show jumping Festival in 1994. THE DOROTHY YEARS But his equestrian pursuits were only part of his portfolio of achievements. While in Australia he founded a successful catering business Madigan's Kitchen in Sydney. After leaving the equestrian scene, he ventured into the hospitality industry, in which he co-founded and was the head chef of noted downtown Auckland restaurant Le Brie. He was one of the co-founders of the gay Urge Bar on Karangahape Road in 1995. And he went on to create the iconic and greatly missed Surrender Dorothy bar on Ponsonby Road. Paul Heard, a current co-owner of Urge Bar, says he is privileged to have known Taylor for a long time, feeling that Taylor was always a positive model as well as having given people motivation all his life. Heard believes Taylor's positive attitude to life was "a good lesson for us all" Gwen Lane, who travelled all the way from Melbourne to attend the recent This Is Your Life tribute to Taylor, knew Taylor from 2007 when she became a regular at Surrender Dorothy. She regarded Taylor as such an inspirational figure that he was invited to be a witness at her wedding. With Taylor's health taking a sharp dive in recent years, his ability to commit boundless energy and focus to his projects lessened. When lease issues saw the end of Surrender Dorothy he retaliated with Dot's Sister just a block away. Sadly, it never quite became as successful as its predecessor. One final burst of entrepreneurial energy saw it replaced with Dot's on Symonds street, but by now he was unable to concentrate both on his health and a business. "It was one place - especially since it was mine - which made people feel included," Taylor recalled when that too closed and he had to face the reality of declining health exacerbated by almost total hearing loss and greatly diminished eyesight. "I miss the interaction with people. I don't go out a lot now," he said in 2003. "With my hearing aids, being in bars is very difficult. Hearing aids pick up all sound, so conversation with an individual is very difficult in a crowded area." Cochlear implants, in which hearing aids were wired through plugs in his head into his auditory system, were surgically inserted through his skull but the result was far from normal hearing. VERA AND MISS BRAZIL Along the way Taylor became very passionate about drag performance. It would have to be said that he was not a classically skilled performer but he had energy and a style all his own and that counted for a lot. However, in 2007 he created a drag tour de force. Hardly able to hear the music and unable to see much more than a couple of inches in front of his face, something most of the audience was totally aware of, he took to the stage of that year's Queen of the Whole Universe pageant. His exuberant and entertaining personality shone through and he was a standing ovation-earning crowd-pleaser. The judges were impressed too and he won the pageant against stiff competition. Taylor was now the only person in the world still living with HIV and leishmaniasis in his 11th year of infection. He had endured more than 700 doses of chemotherapy within eleven years. It was the leishmaniasis and the repeated exposure to the rigid regime of chemotherapy that rendered him partially blind and severely deaf. Taylor's infectious diseases specialist, Professor Mark Thomas of Auckland Public Hospital and the University of Auckland, has likened his patient to Napolean in that until the end became totally inescapable he fought for his life, and never gave up on himself. At the tribute function Thomas recalled that Taylor has always known what he wants and what he needs to do to achieve it, and that included his proactive stance on his own treatment and condition. "Pete taught me about determination, tolerating tough life, optimism and generosity," said Thomas. "I think it is about positive thinking, taking responsibility, and reducing any bitterness and blame in your life. You can't have negatives in your body that will feed the illness", Taylor himself has said. He titled a book about his life experiences and philosophy Don't Postpone Joy - a Life of Purpose and Passion. THE LOVE OF HIS LIFE Sometimes toughness and rough patches in life are only made endurable by unconditional love and support from loved ones. Taylor is no exception. Rodney Coleman, his partner for the last eight years, was one of the primary reasons Taylor says he put up with this condition. In a tearful acknowledgement at the tribute he said of Coleman: "He's my hero, he's my saint. I am absolutely blessed with unconditional love, kindness, compassion… I am very fortunate." "There is a reason to keep living," he added. "Maybe your passion comes first and then the purpose comes after that but you have to have a reason for why you get out of bed everyday. If I didn't have the love of my partner I think I would have given up because there are times when it is overwhelming." Taylor remained cheerful throughout the tribute but his gaunt and frail appearance, despite the boost of a blood transfusion a couple of days earlier, was worrying to all who attended. As he had planned to do, he stopped all medications the moment the tribute was over and declined all further medical interventions. He faced death as he had faced life... with a positive spirit, determination and self-control. And just a little bit of showmanship. Peter Taylor was one of a kind. He was inspirational. And he was a terrific man to know. Not bad for an 'unconventional' kid from the back blocks of Whangarei.     Joe Lim and Jay Bennie - 15th September 2013

Credit: Joe Lim & Jay Bennie

First published: Sunday, 15th September 2013 - 11:36pm

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