Friends and colleagues remember another side of Gus Deeds

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“We loved him and he loved all of us,” said Tony Walters, Gus Deeds' friend since childhood. “I hope that’s what people remember about him.” Photo: Philip Coulling “We loved him and he loved all of us,” said Tony Walters, Gus Deeds' friend since childhood. “I hope that’s what people remember about him.” Photo: Philip Coulling

A week after his death, many of Gus Deeds’ longtime friends are still trying to reconcile the person they knew with the one the world was introduced to in grim headlines last Tuesday, when news broke that the 24-year-old son of State Senator Creigh Deeds had attacked his father before taking his own life at the family’s home in Bath County. The tragedy has sparked investigations into systemic failures within Virginia’s public mental health care network.

I met Gus almost a decade ago during my first summer as a counselor at Nature Camp in the George Washington National Forest in Vesuvius, a little mountain town in Rockbridge County. It’s where we both forged friendships that tied us into the same close-knit family of alumni and staff, many of whom call Charlottesville home. Some who watched him grow up there, grew up with him, and worked alongside him also saw Gus sink under the weight of mental illness and rise again. They knew him as a gentle, talented musician, a storyteller, a son who idolized his dad. Many are still reeling from the shock of his death and its circumstances.

Philip Coulling, Nature Camp’s director, knew from the moment he met a floppy-haired teenage Gus that he was remarkable. He had love for everyone. “It didn’t matter to him what other campers he was with, because he was always going to befriend them,” Coulling said. Gus’ big grin and his Appalachian drawl drew people in. “You never knew what was going to come out of his mouth, but both his way of talking and so much of what he said was poetry.”

Stories flowed from him, mostly about his native Bath County and the people in it. Once, at 17, he held a small audience rapt for 45 minutes in the middle of a gravel road, scratching out ridges and valleys with a stick, spinning tales of this group of cousins and that one.

“I remember even at the time being struck,” said Coulling. “I can’t remember any other camper ever speaking that intelligently and interestingly and lovingly about the place that he’s from and the family to which he belongs.”

He was a brilliant musician—it’s no coincidence that so many of the photos of him that have surfaced in news stories in the last week have featured a banjo—and he had an uncanny knack for improvisation that made him a perfect picking partner. Shirley Napps, a member of Nature Camp’s board of directors, remembers perching with a patient Gus on boulders in the middle of a creek, trying her hand at the fiddle while he strummed.

“I knew one tune,” she said, “and he played along with it. I couldn’t believe this person, at this young age, was so kind and mature to invite me to play my screechy, horrendous sounding notes while he was playing such good stuff.”

Gus was like that with everything, said his lifelong friend Tony Walters, whose dad went to high school with Creigh Deeds in Bath. “Anything he wanted to do, he could do at a very high level.” He spoke Spanish fluently, was teaching himself Welsh, was fascinated by botany, geology, Gaelic mythology. He was valedictorian when he graduated from high school a year ahead of Walters, and he made the dean’s list at William & Mary several times in his first years there.

The two friends were on staff together at Nature Camp in the summer of 2009, and Walters and others recall it as a golden time, even though some of the stress of his dad’s underdog campaign for governor weighed on him, especially Gus’ underage drinking charge, dismissed after community service, that Creigh Deeds’ opponents dragged up. Kids loved Gus, who seemed to have an endless reservoir of kindness and patience for them, particularly the homesick ones.

In August of that year, instead of heading back to college, Gus shaved off his shaggy summer beard, stocked up on polo shirts, and started traveling with his dad. Charlottesville was a major nerve center for the campaign, and many locals remember Gus and his banjo well from those days. Maggie Thornton, now a teacher at Charlottesville High School, was a campaign intern that fall, and jammed with Gus at gatherings near Deeds’ Downtown headquarters and helped organize Young Democrats meetings where Gus rallied support and told stories about his dad. She said the bond between father and son was evident.

Creigh was always excited when Gus was on the trail with him, “and you could tell it was a labor of love for Gus,” said Thornton. There was a real belief that Deeds could come up from behind, as he’d done in the primary. “Gus definitely believed that, and he definitely believed in his dad,” she said.

But Creigh Deeds didn’t win. Election day brought a landslide victory for his Republican opponent, Bob McDonnell, and shortly after, Deeds and his wife, Pam, divorced. News reports later blamed Deeds’ political career for the split.

At first, Gus seemed to take it all in stride. But then he didn’t go back to school. Walters and his friends started hearing worrying things from Gus’ family.

“It was only after someone checked in with him that we could tell something was wrong,” he said. “Something was off.”

His quirks had seemed to grow in proportion to the rest of his personality. Where he’d been sensitive, he became paranoid, thinking people close to him were scheming against him. He had always considered himself a Christian, but he was suddenly born again, touched by God.

“Some of the things seemed really harmless, and a source of comfort for him,” said Walters. “At one point he drove across the country and back, and he said he’d done it because God had told him to. But I thought, if it made him happy, that’s fine. He’s still Gus.”

But when he deteriorated further, his family stepped in, said Walters. He was diagnosed as bipolar, spent time in various facilities, started taking medication.

“Both his parents really worked as hard as they could to help Gus,” Walters said. Things started improving. He got a job in the kitchen at the Homestead resort, and then, in the summer of 2012, he came back to camp.

He was noticeably changed, his friends said. “A lot of us resigned ourselves to knowing that Gus was never quite going to be the Gus we’d known before,” said Walters. But so much of what had endeared him to so many still shone through.

Napps, who had played her screechy fiddle opposite him in the creek years before, was momentarily stunned when he told her he’d sold his beloved banjo.

“He said, ‘Well, I needed the money, but I built this here other banjo’”—an elaborate affair fashioned from a can, a bucket, and some salvaged wood.

gus banjo 2
Gus Deeds in 2012. Photo: Shirley Napps

And when it came to working with the campers, he was, as ever, the gentle peacemaker with a knack for cheering the lonely and engaging the loners.

Peter Shepherd had felt like one of those kids on the fringes in 2009 when he and Gus, then his counselor, bonded over horseshoes and long porch talks. Three years later, they were both on staff, and closer than ever. Gus’ quirks were there, Shepherd said. He would talk at length about his spiritual beliefs. He had a near obsession with Long John Silver’s combo No. 2—“Jesus food,” he called it—and they’d often drive half an hour north to Staunton to the nearest restaurant just for a basket of chicken and fish. But at his core, said Shepherd, Gus was gold.

“He taught me how to look at things differently,” he said. “He’d tell me you always want to show love to people. You don’t ever want to show hate, because you don’t know what those people are experiencing.”

Gus went back to William & Mary that fall, this time to study music. He excelled once again, winning the admiration of professors and classmates. This past summer, he rejoined the staff at camp, where he was still a bottomless pit of stories. He taught ornithology, entertained everyone within earshot, and ended up winning a special commendation from Coulling, the annual Director’s Award. Whatever battle he was fighting with his mind, “it seemed like he was winning,” said Walters.

His friends don’t know what derailed him this time. When he heard a few weeks ago that Gus had dropped out of school again and moved home to Bath County, Walters was worried. But nothing prepared him for the news that broke last Tuesday. Gus had committed suicide, and his father was in the hospital with knife wounds his son inflicted.

There’s a lot we don’t know about those last weeks. Had he stopped taking his medication? Was there some incident that set him back? As friends shared memories on Facebook, over the phone, and around a fire on a cold night—Gus dancing in his beat-up boots to “Down the Old Plank Road,” Gus and his weird love of Jerry Springer—there was certainty about one thing. The force behind the violent end wasn’t Gus; it was whatever had hold of him. His friends don’t sound defensive when they say it, just sure, in their grief, that he’d lost a fight.

“Something got to him,” said Shepherd. “It was part of his mind that he couldn’t control.”

Part of their certainty stems from the fact that nothing had ever seemed to cloud his love for his family, especially his father. Ben Camber, who worked with Gus this summer, remembers when Creigh Deeds dropped his son off at camp in June.

“He was helping Gus move his trunk into the bunkhouse, and as he was leaving, Gus and I were standing in the road talking and catching up,” Camber said. The son turned, hands on his hips, and watched his dad’s car disappear down the Forest Service road.

“He had a very distinct way of talking,” said Camber. “And in his most Gus-ish fashion, he sighed, and he said, ‘I really love that man.’”