Elinor Grace Kirby Lewallen was born on May 17, 1919, in Star Township in Cloud County, Kansas. Elinor was the third of four children born to Osbourn and Grace Kirby. She attended elementary school for the first four grades in different Kansas towns as the family moved around. She finished the rest of her education in Coffeyville, Kansas, including earning an associate degree from Coffeyville Junior College. She finished her last two years of college at Baker University in Baldwin, Kansas, graduating in 1943.
Elinor then moved to Rockford, Illinois, to help her mother care for her father who had suffered a heart attack. She secured a position as Program Director at the Rockford YWCA. When her brother Vernon returned from military service and settled in Rockford, Elinor moved on to a position at the Denver YWCA. She served as director of the Business and Professional Girls Club there from 1946-1948.
On January 25, 1948, Elinor met Tom Lewallen at a Sunday evening youth group at Trinity United Methodist Church. The evening group she usually attended at St. John’s EpiscopaL Church had been canceled so she kept on walking to Trinity. Tom was the greeter that night. Their romance quickly blossomed and they married on August 14, 1948, at Centennial UMC in Rockford so that Elinor’s parents could be present. Tom and Elinor lived in Denver and welcomed Janet, Dean, Gary and Kent into the family between 1950 and 1958.
Elinor and Tom joined Park Hill United Methodist Church in 1953 where she served in various leadership capacities in the decades to follow, including president of the Women’s Society for Christian Service (1964-66); delegate to the Rocky Mountain Annual Conference (1979-1987); and first woman chair of the Administrative Board (1980-81).
She was also active in the League of Women Voters and participated in the Denver Anti-Crime Council (1972-1980) for which she was honored by Mayor William McNichols. From 1974 to 1981 she studied basic design, watercolor and drawing under Oksana Ross and then Edith Niblo. She was instrumental in the founding of the Park Hill Art Club.
In 1978 daughter Janet came out to Elinor and Tom as a lesbian. The following year Elinor publicly identified herself as the mother of a lesbian for the first time in a small group. In February 1980 she first attended a meeting of Parents and Friends of Gays in Denver with Lucile Wheatley, whose husband was United Methodist bishop Melvin Wheatley. They met Carol White there that night.
Elinor soon became very active in PFLAG Denver--serving on the board, staffing the Helpline, heading the Speaker’s Bureau, serving as Program Chair of monthly meetings, and editing the newsletter. In 1981 she learned that her son Dean was also gay. This only increased her passion for advocating for justice for gay and lesbian persons.
From 1981 to 1991 she served on the Sexual Ministries Task Force of the Rocky Mountain Conference of the United Methodist Church. In that capacity she traveled and spoke in churches—often with Bishop Melvin Wheatley and Carol White—in Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Nebraska, California and Pennsylvania. In 1991 she testified before the United Methodist Study Committee on Homosexuality.
She also provided leadership in National PFLAG attending most conventions (1983-92) and serving as program chair for the third International PFLAG convention held in Denver. She served on the national PFLAG board as a regional director (1983-1987) and national president (1987-88). She also chaired the Religious Issues Task Force for PFLAG.
She walked or rode with the PFLAG contingent in the Denver Gay Pride Parade for most of 25 years, as well as Pride Parades in New York City and three national Marches on Washington for LGBT Rights (1987, 1993, and 2000). She appeared on many radio and TV shows including the Sally Jesse Raphael Show in 1986. She was appointed as a founding member of Colorado Governor Roy Romer’s Advisory Council on AIDS.
Elinor has received numerous awards for her PFLAG leadership and advocacy for LGBT rights, including the Civil Rights Award from the American Association of University Women Denver Branch (1998), an Outstanding Leadership Award from Detroit PFLAG (1989), and a Swan Award from Denver PFLAG (1994). She and Tom were honored together with an Award of Recognition at the National PFLAG Convention in Charlotte (1992), Iliff School of Theology President’s Award for Distinguished Service to Church and Society (2000), and the Family Tree Award from the Life Every Voice organization (2000). She received the Lifetime Peacemaker Award from the Peace and Justice Committee of the Rocky Mountain Conference in 2007 and a Certificate of Recognition from Park Hill U.M. Church for her volunteer services in 2009.
Her beloved Tom died on July 16, 2001. Elinor continued living in Denver, involved in PFLAG and Park Hill United Methodist Church and enjoying her growing family. Mayor Michael Hancock proclaimed June 3, 2012 as “Elinor Kirby Lewallen Day” in Denver on the occasion of her 93rd birthday. Elinor died on September 14, 2012, surrounded by her children.
Elinor wrote on October 6, 1995: The song ‘God’s Plan’ I’ve known since it was first introduced (1940). I love the tune but the words even more…What amazed me the most was to discover the title ‘God’s Plan.’ It does describe in several ways the way I’ve lived my life—working primarily on causes that take more than a lifetime to achieve. I chose some of the causes, but the big one—sexual orientation—chose us. We could do no other. Hard as it was initially, we know that we have been blessed beyond measure the way our open door has enriched our lives. We rejected pity and sadness a long time ago and rejoice in the privilege we have had to know so many remarkable, beautiful people and we thank God for the joy we have shared on this unexpected journey.”
(Information for this biographical statement taken from the program for the Celebration of Life for Elinor Lewallen.)
Biography Date: December 2012