Rawlins Gilliland believes in happy endings. And against recent odds, it looks like he may be getting one of his own.
Friends and fans are banding together to help the local luminary, who is facing a $36,000 lien placed on his home by the IRS. A GoFundMe page that went live Friday, “Let’s Help Rawlins Pay His Taxes,” has raised $11,000 from 100 contributors at the time of writing.
Gilliland is a former National Endowment of the Arts master poet, national sales director of Neiman Marcus and commentator for KERA. Today he is a contractor for Dallas Market Center, where he gives his insight on the best buys and latest trends.
But while Gilliland’s varied career has introduced him to circles across Dallas, many of his most loyal fans only know him online. He’s an avid Facebook user, sharing his culinary creations, adventures in the woods with his animals and witty observations gleaned from a colorful life — which provided enough fodder for three sold-out storytelling shows at Sons of Hermann Hall and The Kessler in 2014.
“I use Facebook as a way of communicating with people from a very honest standpoint,” Gilliland said in a phone call with the Observer on Monday. “When I’m posting on Facebook it’s completely without any consideration of how I want other people to see me. And somehow people have responded to that. I’ve created an audience.”
The lien on Gilliland’s home is the result of a protracted dispute with the IRS. His online followers have been along on that journey, too, which began in 2006 when a storm caused $75,000 in damage to his paid-for home in southeast Dallas. Due to what Gilliland describes as an insurance technicality, he was left footing all but $4,600 of the bill to repair it.
“I had to live under tarps in my house for three full years. Anytime I saw that it might rain, I had to go home. I never told anybody,” he says, adding that during that period, people would sometimes stop by offering to pay as little as $7,000 for his house as a tear-down.
Slowly, Gilliland worked to rebuild his eccentric oasis, which had received two spreads in Better Homes and Gardens in the '90s. He says the renovations were done “hand to mouth” on the barter system. Four years ago, that became an issue when the IRS audited Gilliland, challenging his deduction of those uninsured losses and demanding $26,000 in back taxes.
Gilliland, who turns 75 next month, exhausted his last appeal this winter. Just months after the work on the home was completed, the IRS delivered its final verdict: It placed a lien on the property, which he will now need more than $40,000 to remove, because interest and penalties have been accumulating in the meantime.
Gilliland says that throughout his battle with the IRS, friends have frequently proposed the idea of a fundraiser, but he wasn’t able to accept until recently. “Until the IRS finally rejected all of our appeals I couldn’t even allow anybody to consider doing this,” he says. “It would have thrown the entire negotiation off.”
Even once that was no longer a concern, he was hesitant. “They [the organizers of the fundraiser] had to convince me that people wanted to do this,” he says. “They had to convince me that it was OK.”
The organizers are three women whom Gilliland connected after they each independently asked to create a GoFundMe. Debra Witter is named on the page, but the other women have asked not to be identified. Gilliland says they don’t want the attention.
“We’re just a bunch of friends coming together to assist someone who is in need of a little help right now,” a post on the ‘Save Rawlins Campaign’ Facebook page reads. “Someone who is a great friend to many, a virtual or social media friend to some and a beloved, local treasure to us all. Rawlins is as Dallas as, well ... Dallas. As they like to say, he's ‘part of the furniture’ around here.”
Witter hopes the drive will ultimately wipe out the entire debt. “We realize that’s an ambitious dream, but if everyone whose life has been touched by Rawlins gave just a little, we'd get there,” she writes on the drive’s page.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the Observer's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Dallas's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
The page makes frequent mentions of Gilliland’s friendship with and generosity toward Charles, a hermit who lives in Dallas’ woods. “With years of patient attention, Rawlins has helped Charles improve his living situation tremendously,” Witter writes.
Like the organizers, many contributors to the campaign have chosen to remain anonymous. Gilliland says he has never met a third of them..
The donations so far represent about a quarter of his tax liability, or two years’ worth of payments. “It gives me two years to figure out a plan,” Gilliland says. “Right now, the way it was, I didn’t have any time.”
The fundraiser has cast his trials in a new light, while also giving him renewed hope. “It has made me realize what I have been suffering,” he wrote in a recent Facebook post. “And it allowed me to dream, one more time, of a happy ending.”