The Best of Us: Even in Death, Tyrone Gayle Champions for Better

By Nicole Woodward

With edits & contributions by Tamika Carter-Hargrove & Kim Govak



The late Tyrone Oliver Gayle (L) and Nicole Woodward, neé Sloane (R), circa 2008.

The late Tyrone Oliver Gayle (L) and Nicole Woodward, née Sloane (R), 2008.

As usual, I heard Tyrone before I saw him.

I was in the far corner of a hazy, off-campus house party at our university, laying waste to the alcohol supply.

He barreled toward me; the bear hug was coming. I felt a stupid grin spreading across my face.

Tyrone had that effect on people.

Even though we were from different parts of the country and hadn’t met each other until freshman orientation, he always felt like home to me. (As two sore thumbs in a sea of lookalikes, we had found each other quickly that day and held on tight.)

I was 550 miles from home when I started college that autumn, but I knew I wouldn’t be alone.

Two Paths Diverged

While Tyrone was leaning into student government and running Division 1 track, I was mastering how I could get high enough to forget I existed without actually accidentally stopping my existence.

On days I swore I wouldn’t use, I inevitably found myself high by noon. It was deflating, and I felt heavy with shame. 

The disease of addiction progressed and settled into my bones. I could unplug my mind or mute my heart in minutes. With a constant chemical veil between me and the rest of the world, I tried to imitate “normal”. Happy, even. But I never quite got there. 

Tyrone, on the other hand, was genuinely happy. He knew who he was and what he was here to do.

Mostly, I felt small and jealous, but there were moments of objective curiosity. I wondered: 

How did he already know what he wanted to be when he grew up?
Why didn’t he have to be drunk to strike up conversations with strangers at parties?
How did being comfortable in his skin come so effortlessly to him?

Budding Careers and Recoveries

By the time I graduated from college, substance use governed my entire world. I was turned inward in the way that only people in the throes of active addiction can be. Little else held my attention or interest. 

It took four months of inpatient treatment, a semester of medical leave from law school, a lot of therapy, and a seismic shift in perspective, conscience, and thought, but I got there. In 2012, I finally started down my own path to recovery.

In the time it took me to realize I was dealing with Substance Use Disorder, get help with it, and finish my graduate degree, Tyrone had cut his teeth in the political world and ascended the ranks in D.C. at an impressive clip. 

A long time had passed since we last spoke, so I was surprised when he invited me to meet him for lunch at Union Station in D.C.

I was nervous he might be harboring resentments, but I was looking forward to hanging out as [allegedly] fully-fledged grown-ups.

Much to my relief, my addiction-era behavior never even amounted to a full topic of conversation – just a dismissive wave and a wink, and an elbow or two. It came as no surprise to me that Tyrone was still a “master of perspective” and “consummate friend.”

As I rode the Metro back to Silver Spring that day, a thought occurred to me:

We weren’t just playing at adulthood. We had, somehow, actually arrived there.

I just wish Tyrone had gotten to stay longer.

Cancer, and Perspective

Tyrone accomplished more in his career by age 30 than most people are fortunate enough to do in a lifetime.

He served as driver and body man to Virginia’s Tim Kaine in 2012. By 2016, he was a staffer and spokesman for Hillary Clinton’s campaign; by 2018, he had married the love of his life and been appointed press secretary for then-Senator Kamala Harris.

In the midst of all that, he was fighting – and ultimately losing – a battle with colorectal cancer.

During his first bout of chemo, I messaged him to check in. He assured me he was doing okay. He also shared some chilling statistics about the prevalence of colorectal cancer in the Black community.

I was sad and incredulous and probably responded with a characteristic string of expletives.

The type of cancer he had was 20% more common in the Black community than any other racial or ethnic group and 40% more likely to kill him.

His measured response was something to the effect of Crazy, right? Spread the word.

It never would have occurred to me to wonder about that statistic or to educate myself on that topic. Tyrone taught me to examine the privilege of unknowingness, and then to take a look at the hard truths – and keep looking.

Not just once. Habitually.

He showed me that suffering in disenfranchised and underrepresented populations is often crowded out by other noise until somebody powerful has the mic. So when he had it, he spoke up. Loudly.

In Tyrone’s case, the diagnosis was stage-four cancer. He went into remission for a time, but his ultimate prognosis was terminal. I’m betting he visited the depths of despair a time or two upon learning that. Even so, he was mindful of making his experience helpful to others.

That was him.

Stand By Me

When Tyrone died, there was a massive memorial service in D.C.

It was a packed house. I’m talking about a bustling audience of hundreds (or maybe thousands) of people who had come to pay their respects: family members, friends, alumni, colleagues, the press corps. Kamala Harris and Hillary Clinton were there. There was even a gospel choir. 

(I still can’t hear Stand By Me without losing my shit.)

Beth, Tyrone’s widow, was composed and elegant as she took the podium, highlighting Tyrone’s contagious laughter, fierce love, utter silliness, and signature side-eye. She shared invaluable lessons he’d taught her about optimism and perseverance and the power of advocacy.

She also reminded us that Tyrone had left a legacy at Clemson called The Tyrone Gayle Scholars Program. Its purpose was to “create pathways for Black Americans to get their start in politics.” It was, and remains, a concrete way to help him achieve that dream.

(Tyrone had been lucky enough to get by with some help from his parents and could afford to take one of the many unpaid internships the government offers college grads who want to segue into politics upon graduation. Looking around him, he quickly realized how few BIPOC young adults enjoyed the same privilege.)


On his GoFundMe page, Beth had written, “Tyrone adamantly believed that nothing in this country could change until the people in power look like the people they represent.”

As a person in long-term recovery who works for a recovery advocacy organization, I can attest to the fact that the racial disparities Tyrone called out in the political ecosphere are pervasive in the addiction recovery community, too.

So representation – seeing yourself in the people you admire and aspire to be like – is critical.

“Black-led Recovery Community Organizations not only support individuals in their recovery journey, but also contribute to community well-being by addressing systemic issues related to addiction in marginalized communities,” Faces & Voices’ Programs Manager Kim Govak told me.

“The presence of Black Peer Leaders who have personal experience on the forefront instills trust and confidence when Black people seek support. They can connect over the unique cultural and historical circumstances and experiences that directly lead to their addictions and, subsequently, to the recovery  challenges they may face within the Black Community.”

Can the Faces Match the Voices?

I don’t know – but I really hope so.

What I take from my departed friend’s teachings is that change can start from a courageous and uncomfortable conversation. 

So I think we have to find the willingness to tolerate discomfort. Then, to admit ignorance, to call out discrimination; to listen carefully and to strive to understand. To check ourselves if we veer into the territory of appropriating experiences or emotions that don’t belong to us. To find the taproot of empathy and to cultivate compassion and alliance from that place.

The thing is, we share so much more humanity with each other than we realize.

And we can do so much better.

To my friend Tyrone: I didn’t get the chance to say it before you died, so I’ll say it now.

Thank you for who you were to me, how you treated me, and what you taught me.
Thank you for loving me when I thought I was unlovable.
Thank you for suspending judgment around my addiction and celebrating my recovery.
Thank you for being a champion for others.
Thank you for the important footwork you did. I promise to nurture it and carry it forward in every way I can.

Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.

All my gratitude to Tamika Carter-Hargrove for her thoughtful edits and to Kim Govak for her contribution to this piece.

An earlier iteration of this article directed donors to an old donation website; many thanks to Beth Foster Gayle for the correction.

To donate to the Tyrone Gayle Scholars Program, click here.


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Nicole Woodward

Marketing and Communications Manager

Nicole is the Marketing and Communications Manager for Faces and Voices of Recovery. She has a BA in psychology and a JD (law degree). She is in long-term recovery from multiple substance use disorders. She joins the team with ten years of professional experience in the recovery field and specializes in content strategy, copywriting and editing, and advocacy work.

Outside of work, Nicole is usually hanging out with her young kids, husband, and dog. She is drawn to water and loves creatures big and small. After living in Maryland, South Carolina, Florida, and California, she is now in Richmond, VA. She loves words and is always looking for ways to use language as as a force for destigmatization.