Even when answering the phone, Tao Gao sounded like the outlandish, exuberant person he was, Greg Hilton remembers.
“He’d say ‘What’s up G,’ in just this really loud and excited voice,” Hilton says. “That energy and excitement he had for life is memorable.”
A well-known person in Columbia’s social scene, Gao’s moxie for living is being remembered by his friends as they received the news of his passing. On Sunday, his body was found in a pond in Irmo. An autopsy showed the cause of death to be drowning, and the Lexington County coroner said no foul play was suspected. He was 42 years old.
Gao was a dancer and a philosopher, his friends say — a regular at clubs and bars in town, where you might find him showing up everyone on the floor while also spreading positivity to those who’d join him at a table.
“He loved life, lived large and was not one to accept limits,” said Gao’s former wife, Rachel Parker Varner.
Gao’s intensity struck Hilton when they met as graduate students at the University of South Carolina. They, along with others, made plans to start a company — a plan that Hilton admits was mostly an excuse to get together for beers.
“I’m a pretty high-energy dude; I think he matched and even beat my level of energy,” Hilton says. “He came across as very excited but also, at the same time, very calculated. … I never played with him but I had a feeling Tao would be a good chess player.”
Gao’s friends say his energy is a force they’ll continue to feel.
“He was such a unique weirdo,” Hilton says.
Gao was born in China and came to the U.S. when he was a teenager. His mother came to South Carolina to earn a degree and established a new life here. Gao went on to study computer science at USC and took up dancing. His prowess on the dance floor was well known among his friends. Maybe none knew Gao’s dance power better than his first wife.
Varner was done with her restaurant shift and just wanted to feel different than she was feeling. She felt gross from the shift and was wearing way too big of a shirt. She just wanted to go dancing at Art Bar, the Vista bar, venue and dance club. The night wouldn’t be about talking to anyone or meeting guys, just dancing out all the grossness. When someone started dancing behind her, the night changed. She turned around and saw Gao for the first time.
“He danced really well, and I was like ‘all right,’” Varner remembers from that night in 1999. “We started hanging out, and we were together for several years.”
Though they’d later divorce, Varner still believes Gao’s dancing was a reflection of his lively personality.
“Dancing is how he expressed joy,” said David West, a friend and former business partner of Gao’s. “Even just talking to him outside a place, if some music came on, he would just start to move.”
Like Varner, West met Gao at Art Bar, impressed by his abilities to bust a move. They later started a web development company together. Gao took the energy he exhibited on the dance floor into their work. To West, Gao had a great ability to imagine and bring that imagination into the world. Gao worked on who he was in the same way.
“He was really committed to personal growth,” West says. “He was always trying to learn more and stretch more and reach more toward a better ideal for himself.”
Gao inspired others close to him to grow as well. Varner believes she wouldn’t be the artist she is today if it wasn’t for Gao helping her get her work online, which allowed her to expand as a watercolor and portrait painter.
Gao could be like a kid, Varner and West say — positive that things would turn out well if the right approach was taken.
“He believed in a power of positive thinking and meditating and bringing positive energy into your life,” Varner says.
When Hilton and Gao would have those early company talks, Hilton came to know a unique quality in the way his friend spoke. He’d weave in musings and turns of phrase like he was a type of philosopher. Sometimes his musings made sense, sometimes they didn’t, or maybe Gao was just messing with someone. What Hilton heard was that Gao thought of the world in his own distinct manner.
“Most people wake up, go to work, come home, have dinner, go to sleep. That’s their fight,” Hilton says. “He (Gao) always seemed to transcend these everyday issues.”
West calls Gao’s philosophizing “the Tao of Tao.”
“He’d say these sayings that you’d think he’d get out of a cliche Chinese book that he’d adapt to his own,” West remembers. “He’d mess with you, and you wouldn’t know you were being messed with.”
Gao had a mischievous sense of humor, his friends says, and even if it was directed at one person in particular, that person would come away laughing. Varner calls Gao a “playful conman.”
“He liked to laugh and be silly and be carefree,” Varner said. “He wasn’t one to worry about serious matters unless he was talking more about his meditation and (spiritual) ideas.”
He’d play jokes on people and prank them. One way he liked to trick people was while playing poker. Gao was an intense cards player.
“He had a hell of a poker face,” West recalls. “He’d do mental jujitsu with people when he wanted to.”
With Hilton, Gao’s competitive and prankster side came out when they played racquetball.
“He’s all zen monk, but he’s super competitive,” Hilton remembers. “We’d be out there, sweating to death, competitive, but he’d be waxing philosophical as well.”
Gao was self-deprecating too. He’d mock his own accent and play up his other oddities, Varner and Hilton say.
“He was playful and mischievous,” West says. “Even if you were in a bad mood, he’d start dancing and cheer you up.”
Gao put his philosophies online often, sending posts to his friends like, “Truth likes to hide and to be revealed,” or “We are not afraid of the unknown, just our negative projections into the unknown.”
He also shared this quote by Martin Luther.
“Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”