“If you’re going to sin,” the former Methodist minister Tom Poe once told me, “sin boldly.”
He was using the words of theologian Martin Luther to justify some sort of subversiveness (I can't remember what we were up to) but I’ll forever quote Poe on that one.
Poe, an intellectual center of Kansas City's film community, a beloved associate professor of Film and Media Arts in the Department of Communications Studies at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, a pillar of Trinity United Methodist Church and a quiet force of moral authority for decades in the area's LGBT-rights movement, died Monday. He was 70.
Poe spent his last days at St. Luke’s Hospice in Midtown Kansas City, after a short illness. On one of the days I went to visit him, he declared that his spirits were good.
“The best way to face uncertainty is feeling like you’ve had a life worth living,” he told me, making it clear that was how he felt about his own life.
Poe greeted a steady stream of other visitors, including one who showed him cell-phone video of his friends from Trinity singing to him; Poe smiled and made gestures as if he were conducting.
And he requested that his colleagues at UMKC pass along specific advice to students: “Try not to do things because they can be done expeditiously, but do them because they are right. This way, you will be able to live with yourself, and when the time comes, you will be at peace.”
"He cared immensely about his students and they loved him," says Michael McDonald, co-chair of UMKC's Department of Communication Studies. "He was a peacemaker in terms of faculty and administration, but he was also a rabble-rouser. He could get things done, in his own very quiet but very significant way."
Poe's oldest friends remember him first as a Methodist minister. After graduating from Central Methodist College in Fayette, Missouri, he earned a Master of Divinity from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1971. He went on to earn two more masters degrees: one in English from Northwest Missouri State University (1973) and one in communication studies from UMKC (1985), followed by his PhD in Film and Media Arts (with Distinction), in May 1994.
"Over the 35 years I've known him, I watched him change careers from minister, through graduate school to working as an adjunct at UMKC, slowly rising through the ranks to full time professor," McDonald says.
Poe taught an array of mass communication, cultural theory, film history, writing and other classes, winning the Missouri Governor’s Award for Outstanding Teaching in 2004; the national Opera America award for Outstanding Arts Education in 2003; and the Arts and Sciences Award for Outstanding Teaching in 1991. He served as department chair from 2002-2008.
"It’s a tremendous loss for the university in terms of not only his teaching, but a tremendous loss in terms of what he contributed institutionally over the years," McDonald says. As chair of the communications studies department, McDonald says, Poe "single-handedly rebuilt the program, and was instrumental in building a new degree in film and media arts."
Moreover, McDonald says, "He cared about peace and justice for all people and equality and worked for that."
"Tom was a rare individual who tried to make things happen in Kansas City without his ego attached. He tried to put people together and make things happen," says Tivoli Cinemas owner Jerry Harrington, noting that Poe had helped create the Film Society of Kansas City, and the Kansas City Filmmakers Jubilee/Kansas City FilmFest.
Generous with his wit as well as his energies, Poe was a contributor to KCUR’s Walt Bodine Show and later Central Standard.
“He had a depth of knowledge about pop culture history – not just film but also musical theater, popular music and all kinds of subcultures – that allowed him to put everything he commented on in context,” says Central Standard host Gina Kaufmann. “He had a sort of magical ability to make you think and make you laugh at the same time. The profoundness of the thought didn’t always become clear until you stopped laughing at the joke it was delivered with.”
“I’ve seen so many sides to him,” says Tim Van Zandt, who won a seat in the Missouri House of Representatives in 1994.
Van Zandt was Missouri’s first openly gay state representative, and Poe was an integral part of his campaign.
Poe's political work included serving as president of Kansas City's Four Freedoms Democratic Club and the National Board of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.
“He was always there, always at the forefront,” Van Zandt says of Poe’s activism. “He was always a presence in key moments in Kansas City’s LGBT community, very influential but not in a way that’s overpowering."
Poe was also active (sometimes to the point of his own regret) in the Kansas City community. He spent a decade (at least) as a member of the Kansas City Board of Zoning Adjustment and the Independence Missouri Council on Economic Development and as treasurer of the Jackson County Tax Levi Board.
“Everyone hates the government until it serves them,” he said last week, describing the city hall and Jackson County staff he’d met as “the most dedicated and honest caretakers of our tax money, making sure it provides desperately needed services.”
Besides the fact that he had a hard time saying “No,” there was a reason he served on all those boards, Poe once told me: “If LGBT people really want equal rights, we can’t just do the glamorous stuff. We have to be willing to volunteer for all the boring, tedious stuff, too.”
If that's sinning, we should all do it so boldly.
C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.
A memorial service for Tom Poe is scheduled for Sunday, December 11 at 2 p.m. at the Trinity United Methodist Church, 620 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, Missouri.