Be True to Your School

updated 04/11/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/11/1994 01:00AM

THREE DAYS BEFORE OSCAR NIGHT, A RETIRED high school drama teacher named Rawley Farnsworth, 69, got a call at his San Francisco apartment. "I don't know if you'll remember me," the caller said, "but I'm an old student of yours. I've got a ticket to the Academy Awards, and if I win, I would like to use your name in regard to the content of Philadelphia." Farnsworth, who certainly did remember his star pupil from the class of 1974 at Oakland's Skyline High School, replied, "I'd be thrilled."

The student, of course, was Tom Hanks, 37, who won the Best Actor award for his portrayal of an AIDS-stricken gay lawyer. In accepting his Oscar, a tearful Hanks saluted both Farnsworth and a classmate as "two of the finest gay Americans I have known." (The classmate, John Gilkerson, a San Francisco actor and puppeteer, died of AIDS in 1989.)

Farnsworth was deeply touched. "I didn't know exactly what he was going to say," he reflects, "but it was just overwhelming." Farnsworth, who kept his homosexuality private for years, agreed to be publicly identified as gay after Philadelphia opened last year. He was contacted by a San Francisco Chronicle reporter who had interviewed Hanks, learned about his teacher and then asked Farnsworth if he could reveal his sexual orientation in an article about the film. "I thought, 'I've been retired for 12 years. What harm can it do?' " says Farnsworth.

Farnsworth began his 30-year teaching career in his home state of Kansas, then moved to the Bay Area in 1968. He remembers quickly spotting Hanks as a genuine comic talent. "But I always preached to him that a good actor was a versatile actor," Farnsworth recalls, "and Tom has been very smart in that respect."

Never an activist, Farnsworth was so moved by Hanks's Oscar speech that he has joined an organization of gay teachers and in June will serve as grand marshal in an Atlanta parade for children with HIV. But for the moment, he's still pondering his prize pupil's dramatic triumph. "It never occurred to me that he'd pick up the big one," Farnsworth says. "Not that I didn't think he could—it doesn't usually happen that way."

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