EDITOR’S NOTE: The is the latest in a series of occasional stories titled “The Grownups” about West Hollywood residents 75 years old or older who are active in civic life.
Lee Walkup is one of the most politically active people in West Hollywood. It’s not unusual to see Walkup toting his giant rainbow flag at pride events or gatherings like that when the Supreme Court made same-sex marriage legal nationwide in 2015. It’s quite common for him to be at protest rallies like when Prop 8 passed. He is often spotted in the crowd at LGBT gatherings like World AIDS Day or Transgender Day of Remembrance.
Lee Walkup is also one of the most civically engaged people in West Hollywood. He is frequently spotted at city events and serves on the city’s Senior Advisory Board. He’s also a virtual walking encyclopedia of all things related to West Hollywood. He can discuss a range of city-related topics, everything from crosswalk safety to City Council votes to feeding the homeless with the authority of a city insider.
Friend Patrick Cullen says Walkup is “the most dedicated citizen of West Hollywood” that he’s ever known.
“He believes in West Hollywood,” says Cullen, who met Walkup six years ago upon joining the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles. “He talks about it. He supports it. He worries about when the library is going to be open and do they have enough money. He’s a very civic-minded guy. I find that very admirable. I like people who have strong beliefs and are willing to stand up for them.”
Likewise, friend John Allendorfer views Walkup as an authority on both West Hollywood and politics.
“Lee knows what events are going on in the city; he’s constantly telling me about upcoming events in the city and upcoming political events,” says Allendorfer, who serves on the city’s Senior Advisory Board with Walkup. “He’s really dedicated to the community.”
Meanwhile, friend Robert Gamboa calls Walkup a “stalwart of the community.”
“Lee is a great example of what every appointed city official should be,” says Gamboa. “He’s always with the community. He’s engaged, he’s involved, he’s quite knowledgeable. If every city official was like him, imagine how much further along we would be.”
Became an Activist at 65
With his fierce political and civic activism, you’d assume that 77-year-old Lee Walkup has been politically engaged his whole life.
And you would be completely wrong.
Oh sure, Walkup has been out and proud for decades, and has been a vital member of the Gay Men’s Chorus for 30 years. But the political and civic activist that people know today didn’t emerge until he turned 65.
Yes, when most people start slowing down and preparing for retirement, Walkup pressed the gas pedal rather than the brakes. Now, 12 years later, he’s still putting the pedal to the metal, still politically and civically engaged.
So, what happened 12 years ago to cause Walkup to become the activist that people know today?
He got a new roommate at his apartment on Sweetzer Avenue. It was in December 2005, when Walkup was turning 65, that Rick Watts moved into his spare bedroom.
A whirlwind of political and civic activism, Rick Watts was and still is, constantly on the go. If he isn’t busy attending city functions, Watts is going to a Stonewall Democrats function or working on other LGBT-related causes.
Seeing Watts’ nonstop activity, combined with his passion for LGBT causes, piqued Walkup’s interest.
“Rick seemed to be having so much fun, I wanted to be a part of it too,” says Walkup. “I started tagging along with him and found that I really liked it. It gave me something to do besides working and performing in the chorus. And in the process, it started filling a huge portion of my life.”
Soon after accompanying Watts to a Stonewall Democrats meeting, Walkup joined that LGBT political club, which subsequently put him on various committees (he currently serves on Stonewall’s steering committee and as its liaison to other political groups). His political involvement resulted in Walkup serving as an Obama delegate at the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., and attending President Obama’s second inauguration in Washington in 2013.
Attending a national political convention, much less an inauguration, is something that Walkup says his 50-year-old self would have called a “pipe dream.” Nonetheless, he’s proud that becoming politically involved at 65 allowed him both opportunities.
“I never really thought about the fact that I was that old when I became politically active and interested,” says Walkup. “I don’t think of my age that much in terms of how old I am.”
Likewise, after attending a few West Hollywood events with Watts, Walkup found himself fascinated by the city in which he had been living since 1992. He started attending more events and city meetings, connecting with the city’s movers and shakers. In 2011, he was appointed to the city’s Senior Advisory Board.
Today, Walkup shakes his head, amazed at how politically and civically disinterested he was in earlier days.
“I voted in national elections, but I wasn’t keeping up on the local issues or the ballot measures,” says Walkup who considers himself a news junkie, keeping his TV constantly on news and political shows (Rachel Maddow is his favorite). “I wasn’t motivated. I wasn’t guided. West Hollywood was just a place between over here and over there. I lived here but I wasn’t involved in West Hollywood in any way.”
He’s eternally grateful that he is now politically minded and civically engaged.
“It is important to be involved in the city where you live; I understand that now,” he says. “And certainly West Hollywood offers that opportunity given that it’s so small. It gives me a sense of identification with the city. I’m in a position that I can have some influence, however small. I know enough people that I can sometimes influence things that get done or bring ideas up or help then nurture ideas.”
Passion Needed Awakening
Roommate Rick Watts believes Walkup’s passion for politics was always there. It just needed to be awakened. And that awakening came soon after he moved in.
“I certainly didn’t bug Lee to go to events and meetings with me, but he was welcome to join me,” recalls Watts. “And fairly quickly after he did start joining me, he found he liked it.”
Watts and Walkup’s relationship goes far beyond the standard roommate situation. They’ve become best friends and after 12 years of living together, their lives are intertwined, although not in a romantic or sexual way. They not only live together, they eat together, do social events together, do community projects together, travel together. They’ve even gone on three Atlantis gay cruises together.
“Political commonality and reasonably compatible temperaments allowed us to build a strong friendship,” says Walkup. “I’m sure Rick was initially annoyed because I started joining him on the things he had been doing but without my assistance or help or intrusion. But he didn’t say anything and as a result it helped me establish a new identity.”
Watts calls Walkup an “ethical man” who stands by his friends and always keeps his word.
“I’ve never had a friendship as close or as deep as the one with Lee,” says Watts, who admits he was much more of a loner prior to moving in with Walkup. “We’re there for each other. We really look after each other.”
The two first met in the early 2000s at an LGBT-related event in Santa Monica where Watts was serving as the announcer and Walkup was singing with the Gay Men’s Chorus. Soon after, they bumped into each other on the sidewalk, both en route to 24 Hour Fitness on WeHo’s Santa Monica Boulevard. They saw each other regularly at the gym and struck up a friendship.
In 2005, Watts was out of work due to health problems and was kicked out of his apartment when he didn’t have the money for rent. Walkup invited him to move in and helped him work through some of the red tape to get his hip replaced.
“Lee was like a fairy godmother letting me move in,” Watts recalls. “I had a disability claim with Social Security pending and Lee let me move in, knowing I would be behind on the rent. It meant I wasn’t going to be on the streets on crutches with my bad hip. I was HIV positive with AIDS in remission; I’d had full blown AIDS for two years before that, but by that point, I was disconnected from access to services and medical care, relatively speaking . . . I don’t know that I would have survived it [if Lee hadn’t let me move in]. I could very well have lost my truck and might have ended up living on a dirt overpass.”
That near brush with homelessness is responsible, at least in part, for Watts’ dedication to feeding the homeless. Every Thanksgiving and Christmas, the two cook an extra-large holiday meal of turkey, stuffing, gravy, veggies and pumpkin pie. They prepare to-go containers of the meal and take them to homeless encampments in the Hollywood/West Hollywood area.
“It’s something we can do to provide for our fellow human beings,” says Walkup. “It’s become the highlight of our Thanksgiving and Christmas to prepare those meals. It’s incredibly fulfilling for us and we hope it does some good for them.”
A longtime friend, activist Nadia Sutton, considers Walkup and Watts to be part of her “chosen family.” She feels the two make excellent roommates and enjoys having dinners with them often. She cherishes their friendship, saying, “I’ve been very blessed to have those two in my life. I feel very lucky to know them.”
Sutton first met Walkup about 12 years ago, shortly after he became politically active.
“He has such a big heart,” Sutton says. “He cares deeply and puts his caring into action. He’s passionate about human beings. Not just the gay community, but the rights of anyone who is messed with.”
She calls Walkup an “old fashioned gentleman” who is polished and well-mannered in everything he does. She also admires how articulate he is.
“He has a wonderful, old fashioned way of speaking,” Sutton says. “He possesses a beautiful vocabulary and a great mastery of English. He’s got that wonderful baritone voice, so when Lee speaks, he makes an impact.”
Baritone to Bass
Walkup may have been a baritone all of his adult life, but in recent years, aging caught up with him. Although he joined the Gay Men’s Chorus in 1988 as part of the baritone section, by 2014, his voice had changed and he had to move to the bass section.
“I’m a trans-sectional,” laughs Walkup who names “Family” from the musical Dreamgirls as his favorite song that the chorus has performed. “I realized I was a bass when the music was being arranged higher and higher to the point that I couldn’t sing it any more. So, I asked to be moved and am now an upper bass.”
Being a part of the Gay Men’s Chorus has been a highlight of his life. He’s traveled around the world thanks to chorus concerts and competitions. He’s been to many cities in the U.S. and Canada to perform with the chorus, gone to Europe twice, Russia twice and South America once. He also joined the chorus for performances at Carnegie Hall and the Oscars.
Many friendships have also come as a result of the chorus.
“Being a part of the chorus and going to the weekly rehearsals on Monday nights really meets many of my social needs as well as my creative needs,” says Walkup who lists his favorite musical performers as Barbara Cook and Edith Piaf.
Donald LeBlanc, a founding member of the chorus, is one of the people Walkup befriended. When the chorus travels, the two room together.
“Lee is a very dependable guy, a swell person to run around with,” says LeBlanc. “He’s very easy going, not bitchy at all, so he’s a good person to room with on the road.”
The chorus is also where Walkup met the love of his life, Jay Rex Jolley, who worked as general handyman. The two began dating shortly after Jolley joined the chorus (as a baritone) in 1990 and soon moved in together in Jolley’s apartment on Sweetzer Avenue (the apartment in which Walkup still lives today).
When Jolley, who was HIV-positive, began getting sick, Walkup nursed him until he died in February 1995. Although the two could not legally marry, Walkup refers to Jolley as his “husband” and cherishes the time they had together.
“Jay was one of the kindest, nicest men I ever knew,” Walkup says. “He was thoroughly interested in me. He liked doing special things. He made two teddy bears for us, Blackie and Checkers, which I still have. His health was precarious a good portion of the time we were together. I cared for him. He cared for me emotionally. We were husband and husband.”
Born December 11, 1940, Walkup is of Welsh decent. Raised in Beverly Hills, he is the oldest child of Walter Arthur Walkup, an insurance accountant, and Clarice Lee Gardner Walkup, a housewife. The couple later started a travel agency, a profession in which both their children, Lee and daughter Victoria, ultimately became involved.
Although the family lived a comfortable life, they didn’t live the high life that people usually associate with Beverly Hills. Walkup attended Beverly Hills High and was friends with the children of various celebrities, but was fairly oblivious to it.
“Where you grow up is where you grow up, and that’s the way it was,” Walkup says. “I didn’t have anything to compare it to. I presume it was much like growing up anywhere else. I never really considered much about growing up in Beverly Hills until I was an adult.”
After graduation in 1963 from UCLA with a degree in business real estate, Walkup, who had been in the Naval ROTC in college, joined the Navy. He spent about three years stationed on ships (the amphibious ship USS Paul Revere, the missile cruiser USS Providence and the fleet oiler USS Caliente) that were in waters off Vietnam, but he saw little combat.
Later, he was transferred to the University of Idaho in Moscow, Idaho, to teach Naval ROTC. While there, he got his master’s in business administration.
He might have made a career out of the military, but feared someone would figure out he was gay.
“I was in my late 20s and still unmarried,” recalls Walkup. “I had been fortunate not to be caught, but I knew my luck wouldn’t hold out. I knew it was time to leave the Navy after eight years.”
He then went to Utah State University in Logan, Utah, where he studied for his PhD in water economics, but never completed that degree, instead falling in love with skiing. He did, however, unwittingly begin his professional career while there when he took a part-time job as a travel agent, working for friends of his parents at Logan Travel.
Upon his return to Los Angeles in 1974, he joined his parents working at their company, Encino Travel, based in Encino (naturally). He’s worked for various travel agencies ever since. Currently, he works as a quality control supervisor for Mansour Travel Company, a Beverly Hills-based high-end agency specializing in celebrity, entertainment and business travel arrangements.
“I enjoy helping people with their travel needs. It’s very satisfying helping them work out the details,” Walkup says of his 45 years in the business. “Plus it’s given me the opportunity to see a number of places myself.”
While all his political and civic engagement seems to keep him young and active, Walkup has had his share of health issues. He’s had both hips replaced as well as his right knee.
He is also one of the rare men who has had breast cancer. In 2010, he noticed his right nipple was turning in. Upon seeing a doctor, he had a mammogram and learned it was breast cancer. Luckily the cancer had not metastasized. He had the left breast removed and the right breast reconstructed.
“I think I had a vague knowledge that men can get breast cancer, but 2 or 3% of men can get breast cancer,” recalls Walkup, who also has had a separate brush with skin cancer. “It was a frightening time, but we dealt with it quickly.”
Walkup has been a vegetarian since the mid 1970s and then went vegan in the mid 1990s. Both decisions were motivated by ethical reasons rather than health reasons, but he does not regret his choice.
“I absolutely do not miss cooked meat or raw meat for that matter,” says Walkup. “As for being a vegan, I don’t miss any animal products at all. The one exception is that I do still eat eggs. There’s just too much protein in an egg.”
Friend John Allendorfer admired Walkup’s steady leadership as chair of the Senior Advisory Board.
“He runs a tight ship,” Allendorfer reports. “He keeps the meeting moving and makes people stay on point. He’s not afraid to speak his mind.”
When Allendorfer succeeded Walkup as board chair last year, he requested that Walkup sit beside him to provide his expertise/guidance, if needed.
“He’s a tough act to follow,” says Allendorfer. “I hope I am doing as good a job as Lee.”
Allendorfer is one of the many people who Walkup has invited over the years to accompany him to the Hollywood Bowl. Walkup has box seats at the Bowl that he inherited from his mother.
“Going to the Hollywood Bowl is always a special evening,” says Walkup. “The musical performances aren’t necessarily always to my tastes, but many times they are. However, it is always enjoyable treating my friends to an evening there.”
Robert Gamboa is another of the people Walkup has invited to the Bowl on several occasions. The two met while Gamboa was working on John Duran’s reelection campaign in 2013 and quickly became friends, despite 40 years difference in age.
The pair now consult regularly as Walkup serves as the Senior Advisory Board’s liaison to the city’s Lesbian and Gay Advisory Board (LGAB), the board upon which Gamboa serves.
Gamboa calls Walkup “classically gay.”
“Lee represents the gay community very well,” says Gamboa. “He wears his rainbow pride on his sleeve and is unabashedly gay, but in a classic way. He carries the entire [LGBT rights] struggle with him. He knows the history. He can speak to you about it great detail. But at the same time, he can throw shade at the ripe old age of 77.”