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Remembering Bud Budlong, chronicler of the San Francisco FrontRunners and the Gay Liberation movement

Bud Budlong died last week. His work and his words kept the history of the FrontRunners from being forgotten. He was 82.

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Bud Budlong, left, and his husband, the late Don Smith.
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When Merrill Peckham “Bud” Budlong of Cranston, R.I. left his architecture practice in the West Indian nation of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and moved to San Francisco in 1972, it changed his life, and ultimately had a huge impact on other lives, too.

On March 19, Budlong’s life came to end, at the age of 82, following a long illness, according to the Bay Area Reporter. He was preceded in death by his husband, Don Smith, whom he met in the city by the bay in 1976. They spent 42 years together, marrying both in 2004 — a marriage that was annulled because of opposition to same sex marriage — and again in 2008 in defiance of the Prop 8 ban.

But it was what Budlong did the year before he met the love of his life, in 1975, that earned him his own place in history: He joined a ragtag running group that had been started in ‘74 by Jack Baker and Gardner Pond. And through his leadership and organization, that group eventually became the FrontRunners, in 1978.

The original San Francisco FrontRunners chapter has grown into a worldwide organization of LGBTQ running and walking clubs. The Chicago chapter marked its 38th year last September. There are now about 100 chapters from the U.S. to Australia, Chile, Japan, Sweden, and other countries around the globe.

Budlong wasn’t a writer; he had an architecture degree from the Rhode Island School of Design. But it fell to him to chronicle the club’s history on its website. In addition, he served as an assistant director of the 1980 San Francisco Marathon and former San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade committee member, according to the eBAR.

In 2005, the couple retired to State College, Pa., and embarked on a new life as educators and guest lecturers at Penn State, speaking about the history of the LGBTQ civil rights movement — what was then called the “gay liberation movement” — which they had experienced firsthand.

Jay Meashey posted a tribute to his friend and Don on Facebook: “They marched in San Francisco after the trial of Harvey Milk’s murderer, they comforted dying friends in the scariest days of the AIDS catastrophe, they married when it became legal, and they gave talks to younger generations about all they’d seen and done.”

Two documentary films captured the love story between Bud and Don. Filmmaker Darcy Long made “A Lesson in Love” when she was in college in 2017, one year before Smith’s death, about the losses the men experienced during the AIDS Crisis.

In 2015, Penn State filmmaker Emily P. Newman also interviewed the couple — self-described at that time as “two old gay guys who had been together 39 years” — for a documentary about the times they had lived through, from Harvey Milk to gay liberation marches and beyond.

Budlong’s obituary reads, “In lieu of flowers, please vote for candidates who support equal rights for all people.” Bud Budlong was 82.