Wonderfully Strange

Top Dead Center's John Gatty: 1962-2012

If you ever needed a hug, John Gatty was the man to give it to you. It didn't matter if you were white, black, purple, orange, straight, gay or even on death row.

Gatty, who had recently turned 50, died April 27 of pancreatic cancer.

Some know him as the colorful keyboard-player and vocalist for the Tucson band Top Dead Center. Others know him for his 14 years of sobriety and his penchant for helping to free others from drugs and alcohol. Still others may have met the superintelligent Gatty through one of the computer classes he taught at Pima Community College.

And death-row resident Jeff T. Landrigan, who was executed in 2010 following a first-degree murder conviction, may have known Gatty as his sole visitor.

"John barely knew him from high school," explained Gatty's life partner, Cliff Phillips, "but he was the only one who would go see him." The visits came despite Landrigan's negative views on gay people, Phillips said. Gatty simply never told him he was gay.

"How many people in this world ... would take it upon themselves to visit death row with the sole humanitarian purpose being that another human being did not have to die alone?" asks friend Stella Shoff, one of the more than 230 members of the Facebook page set up to honor Gatty. "This feat grows ever larger when one recognizes that the individual being executed held beliefs diametrically opposed to John's. Yet, in love, John went anyway."

It was love, so it seems, that propelled Gatty in everything he did.

"He loved everybody; he loved life," said longtime friend Becky Mason, who discovered this firsthand when Gatty invited her and her partner to move in with him when each had nowhere to go.

Mason and her partner were working at Bojangles in 1986 when they first met Gatty, and although he had only recently met them, he was quick to open his home—and his heart.

"He was a big, cuddly teddy bear," Mason said. "You just wanted to give him a big hug."

Whether it was opening his home to friends and relatives, sticking close to Shoff after her son's suicide, or sticking close to Phillips no matter what, Gatty was the go-to guy.

"He knew before I did that we'd be together forever," Phillips said. "That was cool."

A commitment also came with joining Randy Clamons' band, something Gatty refused to do for years. Although Clamons said Gatty was a child prodigy who learned to play at the age of 4, Gatty never thought he was good enough to play with Clamons and crew. Gatty was officially a Top Dead Center member by 1999.

"Talking into the mic between songs, his funny and irreverent style came out," wrote Paul Mosher, a friend of the band, on the tribute page. "You never knew what he'd say next. Anyone who's heard him lead 'The Birthday Dirge' knows how wonderfully strange and weird his sense of humor was."

Other displays of humor came through the tie-dye eye patch Gatty occasionally wore onstage, and the stern warning he inserted into computer code during his days at Hughes Aircraft after fixing a multimillion-dollar glitch.

The gist of the note was not to mess up the code—or he'd find you and kill you.

"Years later, computer programmers would ask, 'Who is this John Gatty? And would he actually kill me?' People would tell them if they touched the code, he would," Phillips said with a laugh, adding that Gatty would be the last person to actually kill someone.

Gatty's last job was at software-company Simpleview, with an owner who not only accommodated Gatty's lifelong habit of not getting up before 10 a.m., but also showed his gratitude after Gatty's cancer prevented him from working. The company switched Gatty's status to a "teleprescence" employee so he could still receive a paycheck and stay on the insurance plan. The arrangement was to be revisited at the end of May, a month after he died.

Simpleview sent two more paychecks to Phillips after Gatty's death. The company also dedicated its annual summit to Gatty, complete with tie-dye T-shirts bearing Gatty's image.

Gatty's endless reach stretched from teaching Clamons that "There is life after meth!" to inviting 9-year-old Cody Kling to jam onstage with the band. "I miss John!" she wrote on the Facebook page, a sentiment shared by many.

Perhaps Cody's dad, Juergen Kling, sums up Gatty's influence best with his comment, "The next time I am not sure about what to do, I will ask myself, 'What would John Gatty do?'"

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