There was something in the air at the Oct. 15 Come Out With Pride parade, something more than glitter, activism and hyperbole. In quiet tones not unlike the usual gossip, the word was spreading that Watermark editor Dave Wiethop was dying. He had gone into the hospital just a couple of days earlier with a headache, collapsed, and was essentially brain-dead, on a respirator. I, like most around me, had a hard time processing the news, considering the blaring contrast of the celebration at hand. It was just too sudden.
"Dave had been suffering with headaches and fatigue for several weeks," Watermark's publisher, Tom Dyer, wrote in a moving e-mail Oct. 18. "Stubborn to the end, he resisted seeking medical counsel. Those closest to him attributed his symptoms to the recent loss of his beloved mother. Last weekend Dave's condition worsened dramatically and he was admitted to the hospital. Tests uncovered significant, untreatable, growing lesions on his brain. His deterioration was as rapid as it was shocking."
Three days after the parade, around 6:30 p.m. Oct. 18, Dave Wiethop was dead. He is survived locally by his longtime partner, John Walldorf.
I didn't know Dave very well. We typically bumped into each other at press events or the bookstore where I used to work, and always exchanged pleasantries of the snarky queer variety. He always seemed like a show tune in a minor key to me, both smiling and sad.
The first time that I met him was in June 2003, just a few months after he came on as editor at Watermark. We were both covering the opening of Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede, and withering in the hilarity that a Dolly press junket demands. He seemed genuinely amused that I wasn't drinking alcohol at 11 a.m. (to be fair, there wasn't any available), and sat to my right at the press conference, nudging me to stand up and ask a question. I did. And it was amazing.
After the event, my friend Wheat and I were stranded because his car had broken down. Dave and then-Watermark writer John Sullivan offered us a ride back to town in the hatchback of John's car. So, there we were — balled up with the laundry, face-to-glass — with Dave, John and their obligatory soundtrack of Broadway musicals. These are the moments you think you've forgotten, until somebody is removed from the picture.
"Dave Wiethop was definitely one of the cleverest, funniest people I knew, and a fine editor," remembers Watermark columnist Jim Crescitelli. "He always made me laugh. He was also one of the few people on this earth who could have extended discussions with me about earth-shaking, important topics: Which was better, the Lana Turner—led Imitation of Life or its earlier incarnation starring Claudette Colbert? I could unearth moldy, obscure shreds of cinematic trivia and he would know who or what I was talking about: Peg Entwistle; Judy Canova; the confusion surrounding Carroll Baker and Carol Lynley and those two Harlow movies, both made in 1965 … I'm gonna miss him!"
"I'm gonna miss his humor. He was just a funny guy," says Orlando city commissioner Patty Sheehan. "Even when I would grouse about things, he would always take it in good humor. He's definitely going to be missed. He would always tell these little stories about how he would ride his bike to work, and how he'd just keep sweating, and how horrible Florida was, because he was from Missouri. I didn't know him incredibly well. He was a nice fella, and this is a big loss for our community."
Wiethop, who was 44 when he died, had been a reporter for most of his adult life, both in the Midwest (he hailed from Cape Girardeau, Mo., hometown of Rush Limbaugh) and throughout Central Florida. His impact was undeniable. Edwin Bailey of the Winter Haven News Chief eulogized him in the paper, saying, "Dave packed a lot of experience into what would be a short lifespan. With his passing, live theater has lost one of its biggest fans, the publishing world has lost one of its most original writers and I have lost one of my most unique friends."
At Watermark, staff writer Kirk Hartlage remembers Wiethop as the person who helped him get his career on track when he handpicked Hartlage for the job. But he also remembers the little things.
"One of the last encounters that we had was him asking me if my shoes were tight enough, because I'd been wearing thongs for the past couple of weeks," says Hartlage. "In a very passive-aggressive way, basically he was telling me the click-click-click of my shoes was annoying him."
He says that the mood around the office is somber, but that humor — Wiethop's strong suit — is helping them through, "even laughing at jokes that aren't funny." Dyer is expected to carry on the editor's duties for the time being.
"He never encountered a stray cat, or even a plant, he wouldn't care for," Dyer wrote in his e-mail. "Which `is why` there's a minefield of plant cuttings and food and water bowls outside our back door."
Rest in peace, Dave.firstname.lastname@example.org