Monday, May 4, 2015

RIP, Grace Lee: For many, you were our first

Our last two losses were hard, if not unexpected—but I didn't see this one coming.

Grace Lee "Yeoman Rand" Whitney, whose passing at home May 1 hit the web hard two days later on Sunday afternoon, was boppin' around the Vegas Khaaan landscape like always last August when I chatted with her for the umpteenth million time—perhaps most of all over the years while on set for Commander Janice Rand's final onscreen canon moment in Voyager's "Flashback" anniversary episode with George Takei.

But this week, my mind goes back to this moment, 17 years before that ...

...when we really first met, at a small convention in Dallas the summer The Motion Picture debuted (when everyone was disappointed that the TMP "trailer" so highly hyped was a non-event of ship stills "animation." Little did we know...). Yeah, she was a judge for the costume contest, and that's me afterward as my Tellarite in dress uniform, Dr. Ffalst—and this would be your typical selfie moment.

But our bonding moment that day was really more about this mood...

...when she was consoling me on losing out to not one but two sets of Rocky Horror babe-pair entrants, thanks to the otherwise all-male judging panel—and confiding that she had voted for me as obviously the best for anyone not acting on hormones alone. After sweating in the Texas humidity with that nose-putty pignose almost sliding off, delayed due to overflow to see the triler, her words were a comfort—but it was still the last time I ever went all-out and fully made up for a con masquerade. I had shared this pic before, but I had not shared the sentiment.

But hearing of Gracie's sudden loss on Sunday, checking it out with the Fresno Bee paper, and, again, soaking up the heartfelt words and memories so many fans online have poured out over social media everywhere… well, it struck me what so many of us first-generation fandom share: There's a good chance Gracie was our first.

Think about it: Before the Internet, of course, and even before the plethora of large well-run conventions... most of us in small towns and cities only read about our Trekfolks coming to cons in L.A. or New York, or Chicago. Our little "local" cons weren't about to afford Shatner or Nimoy—but, given pecking order and star billing, there was a good chance that a lot of small-time and start-up cons had Grace Lee as their first guest. And thus, she became the first "regular" that many, many fans ever met in person, chatted with, maybe grabbed a photo (from an actual camera), but at least came away clutching an autograph.

I've come to realize the past couple of days that, more than any other of her castmates, I have more Gracie stories stored up from both sides of the fan/pro demarcation than I'd realized. That also means, as sweet natured as she was, those same small and start-up cons could also be a trap: I know at least one instance when we bought her dinner, without her knowledge, when the host promoter smilingly sat at the table of the "guest dinner" but bailed on our bill.

But those are the exceptions to the rule. Gracie, much like Majel at her Lincoln table, was the epitomy of accessibility for her fans. Yes, star billing order drove that, but for small-town fans hungry for some "real life" contact with their favorite show in those pre-Internet, pre-saturation, and pre-'87 sequels days where it all began... well, Grace Lee was their first.

And from what I saw at Vegas 2014... she still was, for many.

All photos: Kevin Hopkins
Total disclosure, but more sharing: Gracie was actually my second, truth be told, after meeting George the year before—but I also remember, at that same Dallas convention, when we chased away those obnoxious singers on the millionth round of "Star Trekkin'" so she and her agent could chat with fans at her table in peace, as recorded in this Instamatic special (at right)!

Swift journeys, sweet, strong lady.


Eric Stillwell said...

Nice memories, Larry. Grace (and George) were my first -- in 1976, Eugene, Oregon. Grace used to joke that we met in a barn at the Lane County Fairgrounds. She said Eugene reminded her of Van Nuys. I'll never figure that one out! LOL. --Eric

Larry Nemecek said...

Eugene and Van Nuys? Okaaay…

Well, it just struck me of her role for many local fans. It is a moot point in todays world, but not to the 70s, 80s, even 90s newbies.

mdh65120 said...

I wrote her a letter in 2004. I talked about many things in the letter, but one small paragraph was about a recent trauma I had gone through and that, having just read her book, I knew she understood such things. One night my phone ran and it was Grace. She talked to me about 20 minutes, checking in on me, making sure I was okay, and giving me advice. I will never forget that kindness, and it seems clear for what you've written that was just who she was as a person.