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Indiana Village Welcomes Ryan White to School

September 20, 1987|GEORGE ESPER | Associated Press

ARCADIA, Ind. — Georgia Harmon and friends were holding court over coffee at a big round table in Donovan's Tavern one Wednesday morning.

Jim Donovan Kinder, the owner of the place, refilled the cups every now and then. "It's just a little hometown tavern where people can come and have coffee in the morning and visit," he explained.

Some of the talk that day was about Ryan White, a 15-year-old boy with AIDS, who had received a warm reception as a new freshman at Hamilton Heights High School.

Ryan's mother, Jeanne White, moved with Ryan and her 13-year-old daughter, Andrea, from Kokomo to nearby Cicero in early summer after her son's condition worsened. She said she wanted him to live in a friendlier town and go to school with friendlier kids. Ryan had been barred from Western Middle School near Kokomo two years ago, after school officials learned that he had acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

Here in Arcadia, municipal supervisor Forest Hanna would not have been among those who greeted Ryan as a new student.

Conflict of 'Rights'

"I am not welcoming Ryan White, and I don't even have kids," said Hanna, who is sitting at the table. "To give one individual his rights over the population at the school--is that right? If hard evidence proves there is no danger, I would say yes."

"Forest is the type of guy who takes you out to dinner if you buy," chided Georgia Harmon. The banter between them is always good-natured. Harmon, a grandmother who friends say baby-sat half the people in Arcadia, says she thinks Ryan has a lot of guts.

"It doesn't bother me," said Mark Kennett, also at the table. "A lot of people around here feel like Forest, but they won't be raising a bunch of stink. I got more worries than Ryan White going to school."

Kennett is concerned about losing his job. The casting foundry where he works is about to shut its doors.

Ryan's presence has stirred little outward passion in this sleepy town of 1,801 people. Most of the school's 650 students have accepted him. Indeed, when one youngster suggested that Ryan should be tutored at home, Amy Wilson, a 16-year-old junior, retorted: "That's stupid!"

"I'm really glad he came," she said. "I wish I had classes with him so I could talk to him and see what kind of a person he is."

Education Level Cited

Tony Cook, the principal, said the community accepted Ryan because "they are an educated group of people and they have wrestled with this for three or four months and consumed as much as they could about it." He estimates that perhaps 40% of the students' parents are college graduates or have had some type of higher education.

Many Arcadians, such as 60-year-old Paul Conaway, who grows corn, soybeans and wheat on a 1,200-acre spread near town, have lived here all their lives.

"I got no kids in school. I just stay out of it," Conaway said of the Ryan White issue.

Arcadia, an hour's drive from Indianapolis, has no industry, but many of its people work in the factories in neighboring towns.

Arcadia seems to live up to its name as defined in Webster's New World Dictionary: a place of rural peace and simplicity. The only noise heard all day is the whistle of the train that crosses Main Street. Excitement consists of the shuffleboard competitions at Donovan's on Wednesday nights and Saturday afternoons.

Everyone knows everyone else, and where and how they live. Bob Wisher, 60, who runs a meat market with his son, makes it a point to know all of his customers. For each, he has a special greeting:

'Hello, Ron. How are you? It's beginning to feel fallish, isn't it?"

"Hello, Cath. Getting ready for fall?"

Orderly Town

There is order in Arcadia. The town hall is closed on Wednesdays and the clerk-treasurer, Betty Shields, can be found at home doing laundry. A 41-year-old mother of three, she has lived here most of her life.

"I just like the small-town atmosphere," she said. "You don't have to worry about locking your doors. The kids can walk up and down the street."

Two of her children, Michelle, 15, a freshman, and Don, 16, a junior, go to school with Ryan White.

"I'm not for it," she said of Ryan's admission to the school. "They don't know that much about the disease. You can't go to court. The courts said he can go to the school, so what can you do?"

She said that she feels sorry for Ryan, but still, she told her children to "just stay clear of him."

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