Charles "Chuck" Lee Windemuth, a fixture in Chicago's leather community since the late-1980s, died Thursday morning, Feb. 7, at the home of his parents in Cumberland, Md., after a battle with liver cancer, with his family by his side. He was 54 and lived in Chicago's Andersonville neighborhood.
"I remember the day so vividly last March that he told me he had cancer; there was plenty of hope and promise that he would beat it," said Todd Davidson, who was friends with Windemuth for the past eight years. "He went through chemotherapy for a few months, but in August had complications. The doctors decided it was best to pause the chemo for a while until Chuck could get his strength back up."
Windemuth's health continued to worsen last fall, Davidson said.
"By December, it was becoming apparent that things were not getting better, and in January things turned for the worse," Davidson said. "His liver and body just could not keep up and he entered hospice care."
Davidson said that, in January, he helped Windemuth pack up what he wanted and shipped it to his father's home in Maryland, where his boyhood bedroom was waiting for him.
"I have cried many tears over the past year," Davidson said. "His departure is slowly sinking in, and I know I will need many moments alone to get myself back on my feet. I will continue to hold his torch of spirit for our world, as will many, many others."
Born in Maryland, Windemuth was an Eagle Scout within the Boy Scouts of America. Windemuth graduated from Allegany High School in 1977, and was a member of the school's marching band and theater club. He attended Grove City (Pa.) College, participating on the school's swim team, and then the University of Pittsburgh, where he was a cheerleader.
He was a flight attendant for American Airlines for 30 years and was still employed at the time of his death.
In Chicago, Windemuth's scene was the leather communityand he was one of its celebrities.
"Chuck was one of the most respected and loved icons of the leather community," Davidson said. "His tireless efforts to contribute were an inspiration to me and countless others, not only in the USA, but in Europe and [elsewhere.]"
Windemuth, who won the 1991 Mr. Chicago Leather Contest, was instrumental in reviving the event in 2004. And he founded the Chicago Leather Kennel Club.
"He created the whole package [for IML contestants]: how to speak on stage, mannerisms, leather history, working a room, speeches and leather attire were just some of the things we taught," Davidson said. "It was never about changing a person; it was always about bringing to light a contestant's best qualities while allowing them to be themselves. The lessons learned in that training apply to almost every aspect of our daily lives, so, for me at least, it was far more rewarding and applicable than just for a contest."
Davidson said the 2013 IML, in late-May, will be "tough" without Windemuth. "He was the go-to guy; everyone looked to him for help," Davidson said.
Windemuth regularly donated to such charities and causes as Vital Bridges, Center on Halsted, The Leather Archives & Museum (LA&M), and of course International Mr. Leather (IML).
Davidson said one of his favorite Windemuth stories came at IML in 2006when Davidson was preparing to compete at the event.
"I had a group of CLKC members listen to my speech and give me pointers. Once I took their advice and edited it, I had Chuck [listen to my speech.] He was in tears halfway through, as my speech was about Thom Domkowski, and how in a short time that I got to know Thom before he died, he had affected my outlook on life and people," Davidson said. "Chuck never really got wild and crazy; he was always so level-headed and reliable, and his enormous capacity for giving is a quality I know he inspired in many others."
Davidson said Windemuth will be remembered as "tireless, giving, inspirational, [and] loved by all."
Davidson and Windemuth have been friends since late-2004, when a co-worker of Davidson's asked him to come to Windemuth's condo and assess its value.
"Chuck was recovering [at the time] from a drunk driver running him over, and his entire leg was in a cast," Davidson said. "Chuck and I recently recalled that first unforgettable meeting, remembering that when I opened his closet, I commented 'nice boot collection.' Although I was about six weeks from coming out publicly, he knew at that moment I was part of the family."
Davidson said that "without [Windemuth's] help and close friendship, I would not have been as nearly involved [in the leather community] and would not have advanced so quickly. I would not have the spirit to give back as much as I do."
Windemuth was single, openly gay.
"The things I will miss the most are the conversations we had, and anyone who knew Chuck knows he could be quite the talker," Davidson said. "He really knew how to take a situation, boil it down and come up with the answers."
Joee Arteaga of Chicago tagged Windemuth as a "teacher of life."
"He taught the young to survive and love in an unfamiliar, harsh world," Arteaga said. "He taught the middle-aged to enjoy life and smell the roses in an ever-changing world. He taught the elderly to kiss us goodbye with dignity and respect in a forgetful world. My family and I were proud to have him as a teacher in our lives."
Dean Ogren, 55, who lives in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood, was friends with Windemuth for 22 years.
"I know that he is at peace now and that he no longer is suffering with the struggles from cancer, but I will miss him greatly," Ogren said. "I now want to try and live more of the positivism that Chuck had always put out there every day."
Ogren said Windemuth will be remembered as "kind, loving, caring, [and with the] biggest heart in the world." Ogren added that Windemuth was a "mentor" to many, "and he really helped the community drive to higher levels of community involvement and helped men improve their self-esteem."
William Schendel, 42, who lives in Uptown, is the co-owner/COO of the Mr. International Rubber (MIR) Contest, LLCand he knew Windemuth for seven years.
"I am saddened by the loss, but thankful that he is no longer in pain and no longer suffering," said Schendel, who tagged Windemuth as "a friend, a leader, a mentor, [and] a person who wanted to help others and his community."
"He was a mentor and someone I looked up to in the community as a role-model. We shared a similar philosophy on contests and their ability to help individuals and communities better themselves. His approach to contestant grooming and how contests could be run greatly influenced decisions I would make as co-owner and COO of Mr. International Rubber, and will continue to influence me well into the future."
Windemuth's funeral is scheduled for Monday, Feb. 11, at Adams Family Funeral Home in Cumberland, Md., starting at 11 a.m.