In 1993, inventor Ron Katz and his wife, Maddie, watched a teenager in the late stages of AIDS tell a television talk show host that he wished he could meet his mother. The mother, whom the boy had never known, lived in another state.
That declaration struck a chord for the couple, who had developed an interest in AIDS issues years earlier. Thus was born the Maddie and Ron Katz Memories Fund, donated through the UCLA AIDS Institute and Care Center, where Ron Katz serves on the board of directors. The purpose of the fund is to enrich the lives of those struggling with the physical, emotional and financial ravages of the disease.
The eight recipients so far include a 32-year-old Saugus resident with failing eyesight who wanted to take one last trip with his companion to Las Vegas; a 38-year-old musical-theater lover who was given tickets to "Sunset Boulevard" while he, too, could still see; a 44-year-old Los Angeles man who requested a round-trip airline ticket from Washington, D.C., for his estranged mother, reuniting with her 10 days before his death, and 12 HIV-infected young girls who shared a slumber party in a downtown hotel suite.
"We've both talked a lot about, what can we do to make a difference?" said Ron Katz. "We've had a lot of friends' children struck by this disease. A lot of people are robbed of their financial flexibility. We have to be responsible."
Such sentiments come easily to Katz, 59, and his wife, 60. Married 39 years ("We met in high school and never stopped loving each other," he said), they are the parents of two sons and grandparents to a 9-month-old girl.
It's true that Ron Katz's 40 patents have afforded them a luxury lifestyle in an English country home in Holmby Hills. In 1961, Katz co-founded Telecredit Inc., the country's first computerized means of credit and check verification, and in the 1980s he began developing the technologies responsible for much of today's interactive communication between touch-tone telephones and computers.
But the couple's wealth is exceeded by their unfeigned personal warmth and caring. Their eyes welled with tears when they spoke of how touched they were by a desire as simple as the "Sunset Boulevard" tickets. (They are not involved in the selection process, leaving the decision-making to UCLA personnel who know the patients. They stipulate only that the requests chosen be ones that cannot be met through customary funding.)
Recently, for the first time, the Katzes met one of their Memories Fund recipients. Joining them in their kitchen was Albert Winn, 48, a photographer and writer from Santa Monica who was able to accept a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship to attend a monthlong program at the Blue Mountain Center, a colony for artists and writers in New York's Adirondack Mountains, because the fund provided round-trip transportation.
Winn told them he was "pretty amazed and very happy" when he learned he had been chosen for the Memories Fund. "This was just a generous gift," he said. "It rarely happens in people's lives. Even though I'm sick, I still like to think of myself as having a career. This made me feel like I had a little more credibility--because of my illness and financial situation, my output is not as prolific as it used to be."
Being at Blue Mountain did more than enable him to finish a project. "It gave me a little more confidence to show my work to someone else," he said. As a result, the Jewish Museum of New York recently purchased some of his works.
Another Memories Fund recipient is Tracy Gibson of Saugus. Gibson, 34, her husband, 5-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter, who is HIV-positive, received air fare for a Labor Day weekend reunion with 40 friends and family members in her hometown, Ringwood, N.J.
"I can't believe they did that," Gibson said. "Seeing my friends was a big boost--it made me want to go on and battle all these things I'm going to have to battle. For some, the party was spiritual, for some, an awakening of social values. There were teenagers there with the attitude that they're indestructible. I think they changed because of me."
For the Katzes, providing some measure of happiness to people with AIDS is immeasurably rewarding. "I've invented all these things," Ron Katz says. "But if we've invented a Memories Fund that's helped people keep feeling alive, that was the best invention of all."
* This occasional column tells the stories of the unsung heroes of Southern California, people of all ages and vocations and avocations, whose dedication as volunteers or on the job makes life better for people they encounter. Reader suggestions are welcome and may be sent to Local Hero Editor, Life & Style, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles CA 90053.