Today, on World AIDS Day, I pause to remember that “positive” is more than a medical diagnosis, it’s also an attitude and a direction that you can take your life, starting now.
Such thoughts filled my mind after sitting down in conversation with Scott West, a non-profit marketing guru, one of the city’s most prominent gay businessmen, dachshund lover, stylish hat wearer and, more recently, outspoken community advocate.
West runs Savannah Master Calendar, a business he began when he moved here about 10 years ago and started creating event and marketing strategies for non-profits.
He discovered that there wasn’t a single repository for events information to prevent organizations from fundraising on top of each other. So he made one himself.
With 17,000 opt-in e-mail subscribers, Savannah Master Calendar is now the area’s largest such blast of information for community-minded business professionals.
“I would love to see more gay people involved in the business community,” he says. “You need to be part of the business community to get anything done in any city.”
West started his business career in the wild but exciting New York of the 1980’s. His biggest professional successes came in the field of convention tourism promotion.
That means that he would line up big hotel, airline and cruise deals with tourism regions and entire countries. He managed multi-million-dollar contracts and was a “board guy.”
And ever since he discovered the Burberry store on a college trip to London, he’s been showing up to those business functions with his “Only Scott” hats – patterned and classic.
“If I take the hat off and I walk down the street, even people from my church don’t recognize me,” he says. “They’re just so used to seeing the hat as the person.”
West doesn’t have as many Burberry hats as I thought he might. He owns six of them. But at least one of them goes back to the 1950’s. And I can’t picture Scott without one.
His other distinctive accessories are cute and furry. He’s had two dachshunds. He started Savannah’s dachshund social club and ran the city’s “wiener dog” races for three years.
He became interested in the short dogs when he moved to a New York apartment and had to abandon his family’s Southern tradition of big dogs. He grew up with hunting dogs.
His little Scooter Pie would sit on his lap during board meetings and calmly manage the New York City trains in a crate. He was in magazines. Scooter Pie died a few years ago.
But he now has Vinnie Pie, short for Vinegar Pie, a tart Southern tradition. Vinnie is the polar opposite of Scooter in terms of personality. He’s crazy. But the look is piebald cute.
“There’s something so comical about their shape and they’re very ferocious,” he says of dachshunds. “They were bred to hunt badgers. So they have a big spirit in a little body.”
Scott’s own body has had its ups and downs. He’s been seriously hospitalized four times. Diagnosed with AIDS and given months to live in 1996, he decided to reexamine his life.
It took the Twin Towers falling for him to leave the hectic world of New York City and return to his slow, native Georgia. He grew up in Southwest Georgia, near Moultrie.
“I feel very thankful to be alive,” he says. “The biggest way I can make a difference is by helping different local non-profits. So everything I do has to have a non-profit tie-in.”
He attends too many non-profit and business functions for me to count. Just look at his Master Calendar! I get tired just thinking about all of the events he attends.
But he personally organizes, markets or otherwise is officially connected with about 22 events a year. That’s a lot of work! And he does it with such a positive, smiling face!
Which is why it kind of surprised me this year when he took a very vocal, outspoken and professionally risky role in talking about our city’s recent and sickening crime wave.
He’s been all over social media, challenging the status quo and defending himself against the inevitable low blows from the folks who see nothing wrong with 37 homicides so far this year as long as they and their friends are getting their share of the city’s gravy train.
“It took me having four shootings in four months in front of my house to wake up to the fact that Savannah has an enormous crime problem,” he says. “It has an enormous corruption problem. I hope it doesn’t take someone’s neighbor, partner or lover being caught in the crossfire.”
He feels today a little like he felt after his 1996 death sentence. There’s more to life than the dollar. You’re not going to take that money and power with you when you’re dead!
“I’m fortunate enough that I’m able to speak the truth because, for so many people, their job is tied in with someone, some company,” he says. “They can’t say something or they’ll be fired or lose a contract. Or their sister or brother works with someone who’s tied in with this whole morass of corruption.”
West’s ALL CAPS public frustration with the city’s existing power structure might turn off some people, especially in an election year when politics makes enemies of friends.
But he’s tapped into something big. And in those hats, with that dog, after doing so much good for so many organizations, including LGBT ones, and after hearing his life’s story, I can only conclude that it’s coming from the heart, a place of life and lightness of being.
“I’m just being myself,” he says. “The best way that anyone can lead is by example.”