Walter Lear’s Extraordinary Legacy

A story of a pioneer in LGBTQ+ equality and public health.

Walter J. Lear

As a lifelong Philadelphian, I love learning about local history, and I make it a particular point to learn our LGBTQ+ history. I guess I’m a bit of an activist, so I like to know about past struggles to inform how we approach our current and future issues. That’s why I was excited to hear about a fund established by a pioneer in LGBTQ+ equality and public health.

Walter J. Lear was a man who left a legacy, both within the state of Pennsylvania and within the region’s LGBTQ+ community.  Lear was an extraordinary, accomplished man who dedicated his life to public service and philanthropy. Upon receiving his medical degree in 1946, he championed progressive health causes and was a fierce advocate for racial equity, diversity, and inclusion across society and particularly in health care. 

Lear’s achievements are numerous, impressive, and national in scope.. After finishing undergrad at Harvard University, Walter earned his medical degree from NYU Long Island School of Medicine in 1946, then moving on to Columbia University to get his master’s degree in hospital administration in 1948. After many years in the U.S. Public Health Service, Dr. Lear was appointed as Philadelphia’s deputy city health commissioner in 1964 by Mayor James Tate. In 1971, PA Governor Milton Shapp appointed Lear to Commissioner of Health for the Southeast Region of the Commonwealth. In 1976, he came out publicly – making him the state’s first openly gay executive officer in government leadership. 

To carry on his legacy, Lear left an endowed fund in care of DVLF (Delaware Valley Legacy Fund) to be used for specific causes (namely health care and racial equity). Additionally, a portion of the fund will go to create historical archives to be housed at The William Way Community Center, Philadelphia’s LGBTQ+ center. These archives will be open to the public for those who want to learn their local LGBTQ+ history.

Lear’s legacy boasts a massive list of achievements.  He helped found and lead many regional and national groups dedicated to health and social equity, including but not limited to: the Medical Committee for Human Rights; the Caucus of Gay and Lesbian Public Health Workers of the American Public Health Association (APHA); the Maternity Care Coalition of Greater Philadelphia; the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Philadelphia (now the William Way Community Center); the National Gay Health Coalition; Mazzoni Center (formerly the Philadelphia AIDS Task Force), and finally, Lear co-founded the Delaware Valley Legacy Fund in 1993. Lear died in 2010 at age 87.

“It is a great honor for our organization to be able to perpetually administer this generous gift from a truly remarkable member of our community. We are eager to help carry on Walter Lear’s tremendous legacy of uplifting and empowering equity, inclusion, and better health within the LGBTQ+ community,” said Fernando Gonzalez, outgoing DVLF board president.

    • Karl Michelfelder is a Philadelphia-based journalist, disc jockey, and philanthropist. After attending Temple University with a degree in communications and a minor in journalism, Karl (under the moniker DJ Carl […]

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