New Brunswick

Saint Johners mourn LGBTQ trailblazer

Friends, family and neighbours of Parker Cogswell, 55, say his charm and his kindness will be greatly missed in Uptown Saint John.

Parker Cogswell remembered for joyous personality, equal rights advocacy

Parker Cogswell is being remembered by Saint Johners for his openness, integrity and magnetic personality. (André Gallant )

A rainbow flag and a colourful array of fall mums and pumpkins adorn a retaining wall at the corner of Mecklenburg and Carmarthen streets in uptown Saint John.

It's a tribute to a man who has held court on this spot on warm evenings for the past two years.

Parker Cogswell died last Saturday, just two days shy of his 56th birthday.

Cogswell was well-known for his advocacy for the LGBTQ community and for his warm and vivacious personality.

"I think he was born smiling," said his mother, Judith Meinert.

That charisma served him well, as it did many Saint John restaurant patrons, most recently at Thandi, where he worked.

Cogswell's charm and his strength of character were recognized and appreciated by friend, family and casual acquaintance alike. 

"To tell you the truth," said Meinert,  "I really didn't know the effect — I didn't suspect the effect he'd had on the greater Saint John community until probably the last six months of his life."

As word spread of her son's deteriorating health, Meinert said, people would stop her "on the street or in the market or whatever" to tell her what Cogswell meant to them.

Neighbours have been heaping flowers and pumpkins bearing messages of tribute along the retaining wall where they often gathered with Parker Cogswell. (Submitted by Meredith LeBlanc)

Nevertheless, she said, it was a very emotional experience after church on Sunday morning when she and her husband, Ralph, saw the display outside her son's home.

"I just burst into tears to think he had had such an effect on the neighbourhood," said Meinert.

"This was my beloved son. I was just so proud of him.

"I thought, he's not just a beacon for the family that loved him so dearly, but he's a beacon for the community."

Family of the late Parker Cogswell reflect on his impact on Saint John's gay community in the 80's and 90's and the community hub at the corner of Mecklenburg created by his infectious charm. Cogswell died this week, and now his loved ones are preparing a fitting sendoff. 15:00

Parker Cogswell came out as gay in 1982. He was 17 years old. 

"Sometimes I just can't even imagine how difficult it must have been during that last year of high school," said his mother.

"But he was out and he was staying out."

Cogswell was a strong advocate for equal rights since his early 20s, said his husband, photographer André Gallant.

"He shared that with a lot of people," Gallant said.

"That was a long time ago when it was difficult to be proud of being gay or proud to be who you are. And he made a long lasting impression."

"I'm so proud of him for doing that. He made it easier for everybody who came after."

Parker Cogswell is shown on the left. During his final months, his regular gatherings with friends and neighbours like Paul Daigle, centre, and Bill Sampson, right, became "a little ray of light" through the "dark time," said Cogswell's husband, André Gallant. (Submitted by André Gallant)

In the early 1990s, Cogswell and his mother took part in a series of interviews for the CBC Saint John afternoon radio show, Mainstreet.

They spoke candidly about the experience and challenges of coming out and of supporting a child going through that process.

"That had a dramatic effect on a lot of people," recalled Meinert.

"Several people came to us — Parker and me — and said that if it weren't for that series that they would never have come out."

Cogswell wasn't afraid to speak out or to stand up for himself and others, said his mother.

He wouldn't stand for homophobic slurs or jokes, for example, even back when they were still "very popular."

While her son was around, she said, everybody was going to be treated fairly.

Parker Cogswell's family, friends and neighbours filled the sidewalk around his Mecklenburg Street home Friday night with colourful chalk messages to him and about him. (Submitted by Meredith LeBlanc)

Meinert herself became one of the founders of Saint John's PFLAG chapter, a group for parents, families and friends of people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer.

But Cogswell's impact extended beyond the LGBTQ community.

"Everybody wanted to stop and talk with him when they saw him," said Meinert.

"He made everybody feel as though that person was special."

That's evident, she said, in the outpouring of affection from those mourning her son.

Posts on his Fundy Funeral Home obituary page talk of his "positivity, easy laughter and buoyant spirit," his hugs, his joy and the loss his death represents to the community.

It's rare to see this kind of support for someone who had influence not through money or connections, said Meinert.

"In his own simple, glowing way he had so much effect on the community."

Dozens of people turned up at 'Parker's Corner' Friday night to pay tribute to him and share fond memories. (Submitted by Chris Cogswell)

Gallant said Cogswell was "a shining light" in his life. 

The couple were together for 27 years.

In hindsight, said Gallant, that was "a bit short."

They packed those years with laughter, travel, companionship, parties and dancing, he said.

In recent years, they enjoyed sitting in the evening sun outside their home. 

Over time, more and more neighbours joined them there.

They would show up with their dog or with a drink in hand, said Gallant.

"They would sit with us and they would just be entertained by Parker because he was that kind of guy."

"He would tell stories and make them laugh."

As part of Friday night's tribute to Parker Cogswell, Dan Merzetti, left, performed the song he wrote for him, entitled The Ride of Our Lives, accompanied by Don Merzetti and Jaden Merzetti. (Submitted by Chris Cogswell)

This summer, the corner became such a popular spot, said Gallant, that neighbours would watch for a chair to be vacated and rush over to fill it.

The gatherings also became increasingly precious to Gallant and Cogswell, as his cancer progressed.

"By the end of summer he was getting frail and tired and more sick," Gallant said.

"But he looked forward so much to that little hour in the evening. It was a little ray of light through this really dark time of ours — a real special moment and he cherished it."

Gallant and others planned to gather at their usual meeting place Friday night for a final tribute to Cogswell, with lights, memories, music and dancing.

"I'll have an empty chair for him with his coat and his beanie hat," said Gallant. "He'll be with us."

André Gallant had an empty chair set up for his late husband Parker Cogswell, with one of Cogswell's favourite coats and trademark beanies on the back, when family, friends and neighbours gathered Friday night to pay tribute to him. (Bobbi-Jean MacKinnon/CBC)

With files from Information Morning Saint John

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