On Friday, August 13, The Academy welcomed Judy and Dennis Shepard, co-founders of the Matthew Shepard Foundation for an intimate evening fundraising event. As the country's only brick and mortar LGBTQ+ social club, part of The Academy's mission is to highlight and support great organizations that promote equality and human rights, as well as to preserve the history and stories of the LGBTQ+ community.
Once the final tallies came in, the club raised about $5,400 for the Foundation through donations from attendees, online donations leading up to the event, and a silent auction, far surpassing the initial goal.
A special thanks to Steven Underhill for providing us with all of the great photos and videos you will see below.
Sister Roma began the evening with a heartfelt welcome and expressed gratitude on behalf of The Academy for being able to host Judy and Dennis Shepard and raise funds for the incredible work their organization does to promote LGBTQ+ equality and compassion for all people.
Next up was a short speech from Vice President of the Matthew Shepard Foundation's Board of Directors, Greg Miraglia. Greg spoke to the audience about the Shepards' visit to Northern California, which included hard work at a local FBI conference supporting the training of law enforcement on bias motivated crime and hate crime laws.
Some lighthearted moments added levity to the evening as Sister Roma introduced Broadway Star Claybourne Elder, accompanied by local singer-songwriter (and Academy favorite) Katy Stephan, to perform a cover of "If the Stars Were Mine." This fall, Claybourne will resume performances of Sondheim's Company on Broadway. He was incredibly generous to fly across the country for this special engagement, and the crowd adored him!
Next up, the guests of honor were introduced by Sister Roma. The Academy community was extremely excited to welcome Judy and Dennis Shepard back to San Francisco – and for their first visit to The Academy – as they continue their critical work of changing hearts and minds by sharing their unique perspective and their inspiring story.
Judy and Dennis are both very genuine and compassionate people, and their energy and poise were on full display as they spoke eloquently to the attendees about the importance of keeping their son Matt's story alive, and the diligent work they have done over the many years since their son's tragic death in 1998.
Following their speeches, Judy and Dennis Shepard presented the "Bell of Peace" to The Academy to enshrine in their Academy Legends Archive. Co-founder Nate Bourg was on hand to accept the award, which is in the shape of a functional bronze bell, hand-cast by Wyoming sculptor Chris Navarro, at the Shepard family’s request.
Many do not know the poetic history behind this distinctive memorial to Matt’s life and legacy:
Late in 1998, Navarro was making the long drive from Texas back home to Wyoming. His career had already been cemented into the history and landscape of Matt’s hometown of Casper. Navarro had been repeatedly commissioned to cast bronze monuments downtown to Native peoples, European settlers, wildlife, ranch stock, lost loved ones and even the mascot of Casper College, atop the hill sloping up from downtown to the campus. Along his drive north from delivering yet another sculpture, Navarro learned of Matt’s murder in a notorious anti-gay hate crime in Laramie. Chris’s wife called to let him know that Judy Shepardhad called to ask him about potentially creating a monument in Matt’s memory. “Later, from my motel room, I awoke at 3 a.m. I have a habit of keeping a pen and paper next to my bed, so I quickly made note of my thoughts before falling back to sleep,” Navarro would later write on his website. “The next morning, I noticed my sketch and the accompanying poem that had come to me as a dream. As I looked at it, I knew I would create this sculpture.” Dubbed “The Ring of Peace,” the monument, which today stands on the grounds of First United Methodist Church on East Second Street in Casper, features a bell and encouragement to those who visit it to ring it to symbolize hope and solidarity with Matt and all victims of violence. The “Bell of Peace,” by extension, is a miniaturized but working replica of the larger monument’s instrument, and sits atop an engraved base honoring the “Making a Difference” recipient’s accomplishments. The full-sized Casper installation is a handsome and yet somber complement to Navarro’s numerous contributions to making the Shepards’ hometown a more beautiful and reflective place. Should you visit one day, you will find it emblazoned with this explanatory poem. THE RING OF PEACE If you believe in hope And the need for peace, Step up and ring the bell, So it will sing
For the promise of tomorrow.
The main program ended with a heartfelt rendition of Sondheim's "Being Alive," which brought a tear the eyes of many in the audience.
Following the program outside, Claybourne and Katy performed a surprise mini-concert in The Academy's Club Level which included three songs, followed by a silent auction to help reach the evening's fundraising goal.
All in all, it was a memorable and special evening, bringing many wonderful people together to celebrate and lift up the work of an amazing organization! Many thanks again to the entire board and staff of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, and especially to Greg Miraglia, Judy and Dennis Shepard, and all who attended and donated.