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Union organizer, teacher John Mehring dies

by Cynthia Laird

John Mehring sat on a bench dedicated to Bill Kraus overlooking Bill Kraus Meadow in Corona Heights Park in April 2013. Photo: Rick Gerharter
John Mehring sat on a bench dedicated to Bill Kraus overlooking Bill Kraus Meadow in Corona Heights Park in April 2013. Photo: Rick Gerharter  

John Mehring, a gay man who was a local union organizer and teacher, died March 30 at a hospital in Minneapolis. He was 65.

Mr. Mehring came to the attention of Bay Area Reporter readers in 2013, when he led the effort to share the story of late gay political pioneer Bill Kraus more widely by installing new signage at Corona Heights Park.

Mr. Mehring had been a longtime resident of San Francisco, his former housemate Dr. June Fisher told the B.A.R., but he relocated a couple of years ago. A former teacher in San Francisco, he wrote in an email to friends on February 15, the day before his birthday, that he was marking his retirement from paid work.

Fisher and Mr. Mehring's sister, Diana Williams, said that Mr. Mehring died of cancer.

Five years ago, Mr. Mehring sought to make Kraus' connection to Corona Heights Park visible to the public. Kraus, a campaign adviser and political aide for slain supervisor Harvey Milk and his successor, Harry Britt, would often head to the hilltop open space above the Castro district to strategize for his bosses.

After Kraus died in 1986 at the age of 38, city officials designated a section of the park after him. Kraus had battled AIDS and contracted meningitis a few weeks prior to his death.

As the B.A.R. noted in a 2013 article, a memorial bench with a plaque bearing Kraus' name was installed in the protected green space, but there was nothing to alert park users of the fact that the nearby meadow and pathway are named for him. While Mr. Mehring said he was not a good friend of Kraus', he said the men were colleagues.

Mr. Mehring organized a group of volunteers, unofficially dubbed the Friends and Supporters of Bill Kraus, to raise money and petition park officials, as well as boosters of Corona Heights Park, to sign off on their proposal. Eventually, the group raised about $1,500 in private funds and placed signage about Kraus on the backside of an existing trail sign at the park entrance.

A dedication was held January 11, 2014, on the anniversary of Kraus' death.

Fisher told the B.A.R. that the Kraus project fit into Mr. Mehring's worldview.

"He was fierce if he thought there was an injustice and he thought the lack of recognition [for Kraus] was an injustice," she said. "He wasn't the guy who was at the head of the march, but he was the steady person pushing on."

Fisher, a retired physician who practiced occupational medicine and taught medical students and others about product design, said that Mr. Mehring used to work with health care employees.

Long involved with organized labor, Mr. Mehring was praised by retired union members.

"He was the best of what the labor movement brings to our society," Ed Kinchley, who's retired from Service Employees International Union Local 1021, wrote in an email to the B.A.R. "He was an effective part of a movement to push employers to change practices and equipment like syringes to radically improve blood-borne pathogen protections for health care workers when HIV was new and very scary.

"He also pushed unions to educate their members about working safely and demanding safe equipment," he added. "It was never about him."

According to Mr. Mehring's email, he worked as a psychiatric technician at the old Presbyterian Hospital (now California Pacific Medical Center) in San Francisco from 1980-1990, including service as a union shop steward and activist. He participated in the summer 1988 strike as a strike captain and union bargaining committee member for the affiliated hospitals.

Mr. Mehring then worked as a health and safety organizer for SEIU from 1989-2006.

He worked as a teacher in the San Francisco Unified School District from 2006-2014, and became a full-time reading tutor in Minneapolis when he moved there.

Fisher said that Mr. Mehring was proud of his teaching career. Decades ago, many LGBT teachers were not out, and Californians had to decide on the Briggs initiative in 1978 that would have banned out teachers. It was rejected at the ballot box.

"The idea of an open gay man being able to teach kids was a historic personal goal for him," she said.

Mr. Mehring became a founding member of the Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club's AIDS Education and Information Committee, and it worked with writers and artists to develop the popular safe-sex brochure, "Can We Talk?", in 1983. He was also involved in producing the club's Gayote newsletter in the 1980s.

In a 2013 interview with the B.A.R., Mr. Mehring said that he was HIV-positive since 1984.

Mr. Mehring was born February 16, 1953.

It was Williams who alerted friends to Mr. Mehring's passing.

"... I truly realized what a wonderful brother I had," Williams, who lives in Australia, wrote in an email to his friends. "I always knew it, as he and I were partners in crime, so to speak, as we grew up with social justice issues in mind and helping those who can't help themselves."

A celebration of Mr. Mehring's life will be held Monday, April 30, from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Alameda County Central Labor Council, 7750 Pardee Lane, Suite 110 in Oakland.

Contact the reporter at c.laird@ebar.com.

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