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FEATURE

The Legacy of Love

A Celebration Service for Donn Ansell
Sat., 9/29, 4 p.m.
Thalian Hall Main Stage
Reception following in the ballroom

FAMILY AFFAIR: Donn Ansell, Dorothea Snow Jones and Michael Walton-Jones at Thalian Hall. Courtesy photo.

“He was the age I am now when we met,” a 47-year-old Michael Walton-Jones remembers, smiling about that long-ago night at Mickey-Ratz. Walton-Jones, then 22, walked into the nightclub with Phil Cumber. Donn Ansell sat at the end of the bar in a full tux with tails. He asked Cumber, “Who is that gentleman at the end of the bar?”

“Oh, that’s just Donn,” Cumber replied.

“The minute I turned around, he was gone,” Walton-Jones recalls. “Phil was getting ready to introduce me to him. That night I went home to Boiling Spring Lakes and told my roommate, ‘I saw an interesting man at the bar.’” Roomie Griff Sullivan doled out the best piece of advice Walton-Jones possibly ever heard: “Well, honey, go back and meet him!”

The following week he did. Lady Luck was on his side. “Donn never went to that bar—never!” Waton-Jones draws a line in the air with his hand for emphasis. “But there he was.”

Having toured with “Hair” previous to his Wilmington move, it became the connective tissue for Walton-Jones and Ansell. Ansell directed the now-legendary production at Thalian Hall. The two bonded over theatre and another musical important to them, “Chicago.”

Magic was happening, but things were not simple. Ansell was part of a 20-year relationship with another man. After much discussion, Walton-Jones proposed they take some time for Ansell to decide what to do about that relationship. “I said,’ We’ll wait a year and if you’re still with him, we’ll remain good friends.’”

At the end of the ‘80s, Ansell remained a busy man as owner and operator of WAAV, putting together a morning show and covering current events, especially local elections. “He micro-managed everything down to the janitor,” Walton-Jones nods, pointing out Ansell’s mantra about the “devil in the details.”

“Watching him throughout that year—his kindness, his devotion to individual people, his involvement with the community, his willingness to chip in and fix things that are broken,” Walton-Jones shakes his head. “That‘s when I fell in love with him—and it hit me like a train.”

At the end of the year, they bought a house together in Boiling Spring, Walton-Jones had known Ansell was a workaholic, but until they lived together, he didn’t really understand the extent. “It was the radio station 24 hours a day,” he says. “That was his baby.” Ansell would be asleep by 6:30 p.m. so he could be awake at 2:30 a.m. to start his day all over again.

Though Ansell had come out to most of his family years before—including his “terrific ex-wife” Janet—when he and Walton-Jones settled together, Ansell decided it was time to tell his adult daughter. Walton-Jones blushed and chuckled under his breath as he recounted the story of her going home to her mom about the “big news.”

According to Walton-Jones she suggested her mother sit down and maybe grab a drink. Janet, by now completely consumed with anxiety, asked Melaine what was wrong. Taking a deep breath, Melaine blurted out, “Dad’s gay!” She was unprepared for her mother’s response: “Of course your father’s gay.”

“His wife always knew, even before they got married,” Walton-Jones says. “He told her, ‘I’m gay.’ She said, ‘I don’t care; I love you and I want to marry you.’”

Walton-Jones had come out to his parents but never really discussed it with his brothers. After he and Ansell got together, they went to visit the Walton-Jones’ family in Plymouth, NC. They arrived in a Rolls Royce that Ansell had inherited from his father. “Well, all we talked about that day was that damn car, but clearly they figured it out,” he says with a grin.

For years to come, the couple would spend holidays in Plymouth. Ansell introduced his partner to Judaism, wherein they attended bar mitzvahs with the Ansell family. “I came to his heritage from ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’” Walton-Jones notes with a laugh. “I didn’t know.”

After years of normal life—Ansell operating and selling the radio station, Walton-Jones going back to school for nursing and beginning a new career, each of them enduring numerous plays—tragedy struck. It started in 2010 with a pinpoint spot on Ansell’s upper chest that wouldn’t heal. The dermatologist diagnosed stage one melanoma. It was small, though, and after treatment the doctors weren’t worried.

In spring of 2011, “Everything was good,” Walton-Jones recalls. The lymph nodes were negative, but right in the middle of me directing ‘Ragtime’ for Thalian, Donn started having a little pain in his rib.” This time the diagnoses showed cancer in a lymph node beside his esophagus. The cancer had spread to a different part of his body, and with it came stage 4 cancer. Walton-Jones recalls the day vividly.

“I came home, and we have this gal who comes in and cleans, so there she was, cleaning. Donn said come in here to the computer room; I was so tired. He told me he was diagnosed with stage 4 melanoma. That was May of 2011. My mouth just dropped, and I started to cry and carry on.”

Ever the pragmatist, Ansell began instructing Walton-Jones on documents and preparations—life insurance, wills, etc. “I just said, ‘No!’” Walton-Jones remembers. “I don’t want to know about those things! You are going to be fine!”

He pauses and takes a deep breath. “The stars lined up pretty badly for me that day,” Walton-Jones continues, “because 20 minutes later the phone rang and my mother told me my father was diagnosed with colon cancer. I took off a few days from directing and Debra Gillingham stepped in—God bless her; she’s a saint.”

The couple then went to Charlotte to meet with an expert on melanoma. At the time there was only one treatment available for stage four—Interleukin Therapy, which has a 6-percent success rate.

“It’s a hard therapy to go through,“ Walton-Jones points out. “They have to put you in ICU and monitor you the whole time. It makes you very puffy; you don’t have any volume in your blood stream. We were there a week and he got infusions every four hours. It didn’t work; they knew it didn’t work. More stuff had grown as shown in CT scans.”

Upon their return, one day Walton-Jones saw a headline on MSNBC announcing the FDA had approved a new melanoma treatment known as ipilimumab (IPI). They immediately called the specialist in Charlotte. “The doctors said, ‘Oh, yeah! You are up for doing that.’ That was around November 2011. The IPI had a better success rate, and though it never promises to cure, it extends life. “When you are diagnosed with stage four, they give you seven months and that’s it,” Walton-Jones explains. “It was seven months exactly from the time Donn was treated ‘til his passing.”

Things were looking OK in the winter and spring of 2012. It wasn’t until April, when Walton-Jones was directing “The Drowsy Chaperone,” that Ansell started having trouble with common nouns. Instead of “car,” he’d say, “Let’s go get in that thing we drive around in.”

An MRI revealed a lesion on the speech center in Ansell’s brain. Then began full-brain radiation treatments. Then Ansell’s persistent lower back pain mandated a PET scan and revealed the cancer had spread willy-nilly. The radiologist suggested hospice for palliative care; it was a shock to both men. As they sat in the car after the appointment, Walton-Jones began to cry. “Donn comforted me the way he always did,” he recalls. “He asked what I wanted to do, and I said I wanted to go home.”

When he asked Ansell the same question, Ansell responded he wanted to go to IHOP and eat bacon. “Imagine that!” Walton-Jones laughs. “This nice Jewish boy—and there he was eating two plates of bacon.”

Around this time Ansell started smoking again. Walton-Jones might be a nurse but he certainly wasn’t going to lecture his love about health under such circumstances. Ansell became housebound at the first of June. “I did get him out once to see a movie,” Walton-Jones points out. “I hate that the last movie Donn saw was ‘Ted.’” He shakes his head. “But he laughed.”

Melaine constantly traveled back and forth from Pennsylvania during this time, even staying whole weeks with Ansell in Charlotte when Walton-Jones had to work. “She’s great,” Walton-Jones says. “I could just pick up the phone and say, ‘Come down,’ and pick her up at the airport the next day.”

When it came time to move Ansell to hospice on August 20th, Melaine had to tell Walton-Jones it was necessary. “I was in denial,” he confirms. As a trained nurse, Walton-Jones slept on the couch within sight of Ansell in order to maneuver him when necessary. He oversaw his needs and managed his pain, but Melaine could see the toll it was taking on him. More so, Ansell’s health was worsening.

At Hospice, Ansell was unconscious for three days. On the 24th he opened his eyes and everyone crowded around the bed. “Melaine took his hand and said, ‘Let go, Daddy, let go,’” Walton-Jones explains. “Then his brother, Larry, said ‘Donn, this is Larry. You can let go; you won’t be in pain anymore.’ Then Melaine pulled me aside and said, ‘He’s not going until you tell him to.”

So Walton-Jones laid his head on Ansell’s pillow and whispered in his ear. Twenty minutes later, the man he had loved and shared his life with for more than two decades passed away.

Walton-Jones recounts a conversation with his mother just before Ansell passed. She pressed upon her son that he owed everything to his life-partner, including going back to school, continuing to be a strong part of the theatre community, and a list of other accomplishments. “I said, ‘I know, but it means so much to me that you know that.’”

A celebration of Donn Ansell’s life will be held September 29th at 4 p.m. on the main stage at Thalian. Walton-Jones uncrosses his long legs, grins and in theatre-speak, which bonded so much of their lives, says, “I just hope Donn likes the show we put together for him.”

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