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Archive for Sunday, December 26, 2004

Old friends say homeless man was literary genius

Familiar face back on streets

December 26, 2004

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Twenty-five years ago, Mike Mansfield lost track of his college pal Robert Gilmore.

"Whenever I'd be in a bookstore, I'd check the science fiction-thriller sections to see if he'd been published," Mansfield said. "He was a brilliant writer, absolutely brilliant. Stephen King wouldn't sleep if he knew Robert was out there."

Last week, Mansfield finally learned Gilmore's whereabouts. He's in Lawrence.

Gilmore, 47, is the homeless man who, until a few months ago, had parked himself on the sidewalk outside the Replay Lounge, 946 Mass. He's known for wearing white socks on his hands, and, when it's cold, wrapping himself in a thrift-shop blanket. Legally blind and intensely private, he rarely says more than a few words to strangers.

"He's a Lawrence icon," said Paula Gilchrist, social service director at the Salvation Army.

He's been a mystery, too. No one, it seemed, knew how he became homeless or why he consistently refused shelter even when temperatures fell below zero.

Worried friends

Now that he's found his friend, Mansfield said he's not sure what to do.

"I want to make contact with him," he said. "I know that much."

The Rev. Paul Gray of Heartland Community Church, left, helps
Robert Gilmore, also known as "Simon," as he is released from jail.
Gilmore, a homeless Lawrence man who is mentally ill, served about
a month in jail for hitting a police officer. He was released on
Christmas Eve, when Gray helped him with his packages. Gilmore has
steadfastly refused offers of shelter, preferring to make his home
on the streets.

The Rev. Paul Gray of Heartland Community Church, left, helps Robert Gilmore, also known as "Simon," as he is released from jail. Gilmore, a homeless Lawrence man who is mentally ill, served about a month in jail for hitting a police officer. He was released on Christmas Eve, when Gray helped him with his packages. Gilmore has steadfastly refused offers of shelter, preferring to make his home on the streets.

Christine Lehman went to School of the Ozarks -- now called College of the Ozarks -- in Point Lookout, Mo., with Mansfield in the late 1970s. She, too, was a friend of Gilmore's.

"I wish I had enough money to hop on a plane and fly to Lawrence, but I don't," she said.

Lehman, who lives in Los Angeles, sent the Salvation Army $100 for Gilmore.

"That's all I can afford, " she said.

Lehman said while searching the Internet last week to see if she could learn what might have happened to her long-lost friend, she found Journal-World articles about Gilmore's homelessness. She informed Mansfield of her discovery.

Gilmore, she said, is -- or was -- a genius.

"The idea of Robert living on the edge of the University of Kansas is like knowing that Albert Einstein is living on the edge of M.I.T. It's a waste, such a waste.






"I wish he could have access to a computer that's outfitted for the blind," she said. "I'd love it if he'd write a blog. It would be incredible."

She added, "Or maybe we could at least get him a tape player so he could listen to books on tape."

No stranger to police

Mansfield, who lives in Huntsville, Texas, tried to contact his friend last week only to learn Gilmore was in the Douglas County Jail, serving the tail-end of a 30-day sentence for striking a police officer after being asked to leave the municipal parking garage behind the Replay Lounge.

Inmates aren't allow to take phone calls, so Mansfield and Lehman had not yet been in contact with their friend.

In the late 1970s, Robert Gilmore attended the School of the
Ozarks, where this photo was taken, before coming to Kansas
University with the intention of getting a graduate degree. Instead
of becoming a scholar, he became a homeless person on the streets
of Lawrence, as seen below in this January 2003 file photo.

In the late 1970s, Robert Gilmore attended the School of the Ozarks, where this photo was taken, before coming to Kansas University with the intention of getting a graduate degree. Instead of becoming a scholar, he became a homeless person on the streets of Lawrence, as seen below in this January 2003 file photo.

Gilmore was released from jail Friday morning. His mother and brother were there to receive him, but he declined their assistance.

His mother said Gilmore as a child had been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. Mental health and law enforcement officials say Gilmore is a prime example of how the mentally ill, especially those who refuse treatment, can fall through the cracks in the social service network and end up living on the streets.

No stranger to Lawrence police, Gilmore has been arrested more than 40 times, usually for charges of wandering onto private property, urinating in public, disobeying a police officer or obstructing traffic.

His college friends said Gilmore's behavior was odd even when he was well enough to lead a somewhat normal life as a student.

Trying to reconnect

"He was incredibly hard to get to know," Mansfield said, "because he put on so many fronts, you never knew who you were dealing with. I finally figured out that it was his way of dealing with who he was -- whenever something hurtful happened, he could say 'Oh, that didn't happen to me. It happened to that character I created. They think it's me, but that's not me. I'm me.'"

Mansfield said Gilmore once let him look through "a huge footlocker" filled with stories, poems and drawings, dating back to Gilmore's days in kindergarten.

"I pray they still exist," he said. "They were wonderful, beautiful, imaginative, original -- clearly the work of a genius," he said.

At the Salvation Army, Gilchrist said she would offer to put Gilmore in touch with Lehman and Mansfield.

Robert Gilmore leaves jail on Christmas Eve, after serving a month
for striking a police officer. Gilmore refused offers of assistance
Friday in favor of returning to the streets, where he has lived for
several years in Lawrence.

Robert Gilmore leaves jail on Christmas Eve, after serving a month for striking a police officer. Gilmore refused offers of assistance Friday in favor of returning to the streets, where he has lived for several years in Lawrence.

"A lot of people are concerned about Robert's welfare," Gilchrist said. "Unfortunately, it's hard to come up with a good fit for him. We help him with toiletries and food, but the (Salvation Army's overnight) shelter is not a good environment for him. He doesn't stay here."

Gilchrist said her office, Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center workers, and advocates for the homeless routinely reached out to Gilmore. And just as routinely, he turns them down.

"He's resourceful," said Jennifer Newlin, a Lawrence attorney who has represented Gilmore during his most recent court appearances. "I don't know what's going to happen to him, but he's the person who's calling the shots in his life right now. And he's free to do that."

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