Sporting her signature bow tie, Jessica Flatequal would greet hundreds of LGBT students in Mankato with a hug, a smile and a “hey, buddy!”

As a self-proclaimed “professional lesbian,” the lifelong Mankato resident became a critical supporter for many students at Minnesota State University, Mankato — providing the guidance she would’ve wanted when she was a student. Throughout her life, she worked as a gay rights advocate, the first full-time director of the campus LGBT Center, a leader of South Central Minnesota Pride and an activist, campaigning for Gov. Tim Walz.

“If you didn’t know who Jessica Flatequal was, you just weren’t paying attention,” said Jim “Gully” Gullickson, the general manager of the campus radio station, KMSU. “She was a bigger-than-life kind of person.”

Flatequal died April 9 at the age of 46 from liver disease.

She was born in North Dakota and grew up in Mankato, attending Mankato East High School before studying art at MSU. There, she struggled with being gay, and hung up the phone several times when she called the LGBT Center for support. By 2004, after students demanded the administration hire a full-time faculty position to run the center, Flatequal got the job, realizing she could make a difference.

“She changed thousands of minds and touched zillions of hearts,” said former student Brian Wollum, now 33, of Minneapolis, who was inspired by her to work in higher education, too. “I really can’t think of a single person who has influenced my life more than Jessica.”

When Elliott Kunerth came out as transgender at 15, he didn’t see many resources in southern Minnesota. So he showed up at the university’s LGBT Center, where Flatequal stayed late for a conversation that changed his life.

“She was the first person to tell me it’s OK to be who I am,” said Kunerth, now a junior at MSU. “She’s just a monumental, pivotal person for the community.”

Flatequal, a loud extrovert, also described herself as a “proud townie.” Instead of leaving for cities with more established LGBT communities, she was passionate about making a difference in her own hometown.

“She wanted Mankato to be better. That’s a huge gift she gave this town,” said her wife, Maria Bevacqua, who’s an MSU professor. “She knew she was creating and providing the kind of explicit support, love and compassion she would have wanted” as a student.

While some described her as a pioneer, Bevacqua said her wife knew she was building on a longtime movement.

“She was meant to do that; she wanted to make a difference in people’s lives,” added Jenn Melby-Kelley, a Mankato City Council member and longtime friend. “She was a really big force of positivity and inclusivity.”

Flatequal became the director of gender and sexuality programs at MSU, overseeing the LGBT Center and other programs. She also ran South Central Minnesota Pride, which put on the annual pride festival. Barbara Carson remembers being the only person on the block watching when the parade began years ago. Now, thousands turn out.

“She became a champion for people who had struggles in their life,” said Carson, an MSU professor.

Flatequal also loved painting, Star Wars action figures, karaoke, musicals and music. And she campaigned for Walz when he ran for Congress and governor. In a prepared statement, Walz and First Lady Gwen Walz called her a “firecracker” and “tireless advocate.” MSU President Richard Davenport added that she was a “beacon of light and inspiration to students, faculty and staff.”

Services have been held. Flatequal is survived by Bevacqua; her mother, Diane Gannon of Mankato; her father, Bob Flatequal of Lake Crystal; and stepsisters, Tina Holcombe of Mankato and Tiffany Gannon of Washington, D.C.