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Family of gay man slain in 1976 finds city still remembers

Richard Heakin

Richard Heakin

Heather Ryan typed into an Internet search engine the name of an uncle four teens beat to death in Tucson and discovered a world unknown to the family.

The June 6, 1976, attack on 21-year-old Richard J. Heakin, a gay man visiting from Nebraska, had spawned a revolution.

Outraged that the 15- to 17-year-old killers received only probation for what was termed a hate crime, Tucson pressed for change and introduced anti-discrimination laws, new organizations and pride events celebrating the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered community.

Then a Tucson committee decided on a memorial and tried to reach the Heakin family. But a dishonest friend supposedly said they wanted nothing to do with it, the family later learned.

Tucson pressed on with a bench and plaque in 2002 without knowing the family didn’t judge Heakin and would have wanted to be part of the memorial.

The pivotal connection came earlier this year.

While Lori Ryan, Heakin’s sister, was at bingo, her daughter spent the night at their Missouri home tracking down e-mail addresses that resulted in a phone number exchange, which led to a talk with Rowan Frost, one among the group that tried to reach the family years ago.

“We probably still would not have known if she hadn’t . . . gone on the Net,” Ryan, 49, said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “Making that phone call made all the difference.”

So came the tender and thrilling moment when Ryan received a mass of newspaper clippings about various events commemorating her brother. She booked a flight to Tucson so she could get to know the city that has spent decades keeping his name alive.

Ryan was to fly in today, the day before her brother’s birthday.

It’s the first Heakin family visit and it coincides with the Tucson Pride rally and parade.

When the community found out Ryan was coming, several groups made impromptu event changes.

The Royal Elizabeth Bed and Breakfast Inn is lodging Ryan at no cost. The Reveille Tucson Gay Men’s Chorus will honor Heakin Friday night. And Pride on Parade!, which had already selected a grand marshal, decided to give Ryan the honor instead.

“We really felt like we owed Richard a debt of gratitude, and this is one of the ways we can pay our respects,” said Gary Rhine, president of Tucson Pride, whose organization will present the parade.

In June 1976, Heakin was wrapping up a vacation and went with friends to the former Stonewall Tavern on North First Avenue just south of East Fort Lowell Road.

As the group was leaving, Heakin was attacked in the parking lot.

Within months, Tucson passed an ordinance protecting gays and lesbians. Later, the city also introduced protections for transgendered people.

Tucson’s gay-oriented newspaper, the Pride festival and Pride picnic were created. Heakin’s death was also one of the events that led to the creation of Wingspan, a community center.

“I hope the community can once again take some healing from this,” said Frost, a University of Arizona graduate student in public health.

While Heakin died in a hate crime, Ryan said she wants Tucsonans to realize he was loved by his family.

“They know Richard was a young, gay man, but they don’t know who Dickie was.”

She recalls that Heakin got hit by a car, cut his finger on a running lawn mower and once fell out of a moving vehicle. Yet it was a savage hate-driven assault that took “Dickie.”

Ryan said he entertained and cared for his family, once taking his young cousin to the dentist and paying the bill. He was active with gay organizations and was working toward buying his mother a “big, beautiful home.”

Nearly 120 cars followed a procession to his funeral, Ryan said.

“I’m glad this is falling on gay pride weekend because I want to thank the entire gay community for all everyone did – all their donations, hard work and prayers,” she said. “We want to let people know we’re so sorry that they felt he wasn’t loved because he was, very much so.”



● Friday, 10:30 a.m.: memorial and birthday cake for Richard Heakin at Sunset Park, 255 W. Alameda St.

● Friday, 8 p.m.: The Reveille Tucson Gay Men’s Chorus and Desert Voices will honor Heakin and other victims of hate crime at the Historic Y, 300 E. University Blvd. Ticket information: 304-1758.

● Saturday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.: Pride in the Desert at Reid Park’s DeMeester Outdoor Performance Center. Tickets are $10.

● Sunday: Pride on Parade! begins at 5 p.m. on Fourth Avenue between East Ninth Street and East University Boulevard.

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