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Ryan White Dies; Fought AIDS, Bigotry

April 09, 1990|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

INDIANAPOLIS — Ryan White, the kid from Kokomo who captured the hearts of presidents, rock stars and the nation during his five-year battle against AIDS and bigotry, died Sunday. He was 18.

"He was the boy next door who first showed to a stunned nation that no one is safe from the risk of AIDS," said Dr. Martin B. Kleiman of Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Medical Center, where White died of the complications of AIDS.

White had been in a coma since being placed on a life-support respirator a week ago and was not aware of his surroundings, Kleiman said, adding: "I am confident he suffered no pain at the end."

The honor student rose to national attention in 1985 when a middle school near Kokomo barred him from attending classes because he had AIDS.

The rejection of him by classmates and school officials appalled many people nationwide, and White was befriended by celebrities, such as singer Michael Jackson. In 1989, White's life story was the basis for a television movie.

"I have had no client of whom I'm prouder of than Ryan White," said Michael Lee Gradison, executive director of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union, which represented White in his court battle to attend school. Gradison called White "an unbelievable profile of courage."

White was found to have AIDS in 1984 when he was 13. He contracted it through a blood-clotting agent used to treat his hemophilia.

The following year, he was barred from Western Middle School after school officials and parents there rejected health authorities' reassurances that AIDS cannot be spread through casual contact.

In what White would later refer to wryly as "Ryan White jokes," people in Kokomo, a blue-collar community in central Indiana, attacked him viciously, circulating rumors that he was spitting on vegetables at a local supermarket. Schoolmates spray-painted obscenities on his locker.

Gradison charged that the opposition to White's attending classes "was strictly homophobic and an irrational fear of contagion."

After months of school board battles and court hearings, White won the right to attend school. But pressures on his family drove the Whites to the town of Cicero, a small Indianapolis suburb, where he was enrolled at Hamilton Heights High School.

When he moved to Cicero, "he was welcomed literally with open arms," recalled Gradison. "He showed a lot of guts and suffered so much to stand up for what he believed in."

Looking back, Charles Vaughn Jr., whose Lafayette, Ind., law firm also represented White and his mother, Jeanne, in the discrimination suit, recalled: "They threw every hurdle they could at this boy. . . . Remember, in 1985 no one would come out and say, 'I have AIDS.' He didn't worry about keeping it a secret from anyone."

In the years since, despite frail health, White, a young man who seemed mature beyond his years, had traveled widely, getting out the message about how AIDS is--and is not--spread and asking for compassion for those with the disease.

White was befriended by celebrities and became something of a celebrity himself. As recently as late March, he was in Los Angeles, where he met with former President Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy, and attended the Academy Awards presentations.

But, Kleiman said, White returned a day early from California and was "just feeling bad." He was admitted to Riley Hospital on March 29 with a respiratory infection and, three days later, was put on a ventilator to assist his breathing.

"He loved life," Kleiman said, and the Riley medical team felt there was "an excellent opportunity of providing more time for him," but, ultimately, he said, the infection was "a severe insult on his lungs," which already were chronically diseased.

Had White survived this crisis, one of a number he has had since Kleiman diagnosed AIDS in 1984, "he may have had a significant amount of compromise" in the quality of his life.

"He had a lot of good days out of the five years," Kleiman said. "Unfortunately, toward the end, he didn't have them as frequently as he wanted to." Poor health had forced White to drop out of school in December.

Over the last week, Riley Hospital has been flooded with thousands of phone calls daily from people across the country offering prayers and good wishes. Last week, on a visit to Indianapolis, President Bush planted a tree in his honor.

Late Saturday, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, in the city for Saturday's Farm Aid IV concert, dropped by the intensive care unit and visited with White's family and other young patients.

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