The Fairbanks High class of 1984 graduated 67 students, including a tall, lonely boy who loved cheerleading. Since the entire population of Unionville Center, Ohio barely reached 200, it's not hard to imagine how tumbling and handsprings targeted him for bullying, said Trace Kingham, CEO (chief experience officer) of Kingham Signature Events, "but I loved performing and entertaining." He forged his mother's signature for audition permission and practiced like it was an Olympic tryout.
Looking back now, the bullying and harassment made him more determined to endure. "My experience was all for a reason... I've been able to turn it into something positive," he said. Ironically, a football coach, acting as the cheerleading advisor one semester, put him on the squad. Six years later, Kingham made it onto the Ohio State University varsity squad, with a scholarship to boot.
"Cheerleading changed my life... it opened doors beyond my imagination," Kingham, 51, said, by fostering friendships, style and trust he calls on as an event planner for clients including the American Red Cross, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, Lowry Park Zoo, Sykes Enterprises and Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services.
Kingham recently shared his childhood and career experiences with Tampa Bay Times reporter Amy Scherzer.
Cheerleading isn't the typical pastime for young boys growing up in small rural communities in the Midwest. How did you get so hooked on acrosports?
I always chose things that were not normal things boys did in the late '70s. I always wanted to hang out with the girls and they were trying out for cheerleading, so I decided that I wanted to be a cheerleader. I had seen a collegiate competition on TV and there were boys. Everyone was against it, so after a year of begging, I forged my mother's signature and tried out in seventh grade. My scores were high enough but I didn't make it because I was a boy. That opened the floodgates of bullying and name calling.
How did you handle aggressive kids? Were the adults in your life supportive at least?
A lot of crying and depression, thoughts of suicide. Not understanding why I didn't make it pushed me to be better and in 9th grade, I made it. The football coach was the interim advisor and he said, "You're on the squad, son. What are you going to wear a skirt?" I pulled a catalog out of my backpack and said, "Look, there are boys and they have pants." He was the only one that I remember sticking up for me. He had a little bit of compassion. Everyone else let it all happen.
A tyrant sat behind me every morning in homeroom and he was just awful. My locker was next to his and that's how I started my day. I had a guidance counselor call me in from time to time, he wanted to groom me to abuse me. Ever since, I've honed that skill, to quickly assess, "Am I safe?"
My sophomore year I made the varsity squad and I was so proud of myself. But it really put a target on my back. The parents wanted to kick me out and it was a pretty intense situation.
My mom never attended the games. I think she was ashamed and didn't know how to handle it. My brother hated me for ruining the family. I didn't have anybody and when I shared feelings it was used against me. I got beat up after a game in 11th grade and decided I'd had enough and didn't cheer senior year. In hindsight I wish I had stayed with it.
But you did stick with it, including cheering in Tampa at an Outback Bowl. What changed when you got to Ohio State?
College was never discussed. It wasn't in our sightline. I went to school in the morning and worked a half day at Farmer's Insurance in Columbus. I graduated and worked there full-time. You went to work, that's what you did.
My boss was just great, encouraging me to take some community college classes and get a degree in "something you love." I took the SAT and got a full ride to Ohio State.
The first home football game of the season, all the light bulbs went off in my head and I discovered cheerleading was the coolest thing ever. I didn't get my hopes up. I was 6-foot-2 and couldn't even touch my toes. After two years of intensive training in acrosports, I tried out at the end of sophomore year and made it. I was ecstatic.
I cheered for two years and graduated class of 1991 with no debt. I did it all myself.
How did you decide to become an event planner? What have you staged that really wowed?
I got a part in Cabaret in a Delray Beach dinner theater for six weeks and I loved Florida and stayed. I waited tables and auditioned for acting and modeling gigs and worked part-time in a bank. A bank client asked me to work on an event for the Florida Caribbean Cruise Association at the Ft. Lauderdale Pier.
When I said, "but I'm an actor," she said, "Did you know events are like live theater?" The proverbial light bulb again. We didn't do galas in Unionville. I took the job and my first event was creating a gala for the cruise association.
Over the next three years, I did many trade shows in Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, Jamaica. I did all the planning in Miami, ordered the equipment loaded on a ship and then flew down there to get it through customs. The logistics weren't easy.
I use my theatrical training and produced all experiences from a directorial perspective. The years I produced Karamu were a huge transformation for a stale zoo event. I revamped the Heroes luncheon for the Sykes Foundation. Recently I worked with the national Red Cross summit in Washington, D.C., culminating with a big dinner at the Smithsonian Portrait Gallery to celebrate the Tiffany Circle raising more than $100 million. One of my favorites in Ohio was a hospital gala that was taken over by pirates scaling from the ceiling.
What enticed you and your family to Tampa Bay?
I went out to Los Angeles to try acting and lasted about nine months. I realized I wanted a family, a house, a yard … I couldn't see the path to getting that so I went back and worked for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Columbus until one of their sponsors swooped me up. After a couple of years I broke out on my own in 2004.
Brad and I graduated from Ohio State on the same day but we didn't know each other. We met in 2003 and got married in 2013 in New York. He was recruited to Moffitt and I was able to reinvent myself down here.
We adopted Nicholas, 11, in Akron when he was 6 weeks old and we were in the room when Donavan, 7, was born. Both their birth mothers were seeking same sex couples so they could be the only mother in their lives. They didn't want anyone else to be called Mom.
What do you say to kids being bullied? And their parents?
First thing, if I could do it over again, I would seek out help, which I did not. I tried to be as inconspicuous as possible. Second thing: There's an end. I look back and it (bullying) is a very small blip of my lifetime. Those were dark times and it felt like they were never going to end, but you'll get through it.
Set up that consistency of conversation as a parent. I'm always being inquisitive and asking questions of my children so I can get a sense of what they're feeling. Out of conversations about their day come nuances that get into the moment that I didn't have.
Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity.