Ryan White Dies; Fought AIDS, Bigotry


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.

Singer Elton John, who had been at the hospital throughout this crisis, playing tapes for White and decorating his room with get-well cards, was with White's mother and sister, Andrea, at his bedside when he died. At the Farm Aid concert, attended by 45,000 in the Hoosier Dome, John paid a moving tribute to White. "This one's for Ryan," he said, introducing "Candle in the Wind," a song about the short life of Marilyn Monroe. Jackson led the hushed audience in a prayer for Ryan.

Both Bush and the Reagans issued statements of condolence Sunday. "Ryan's death reaffirms that we as a people must pledge to continue the fight, his fight, against this dreaded disease," the President said in a statement issued at the presidential retreat in Camp David, Md.

In Los Angeles, the Reagans said: "Ryan White was a very brave young man who was an inspiration to us all. . . . He and his family stand as a symbol of the need for greater tolerance and understanding toward those afflicted with AIDS."

Indiana Gov. Evan Bayh sent a letter of condolence Sunday to Ryan's mother, in which he hailed the young man as "an American hero." The teen-ager's life, Bayh said, "has become an international symbol of the tragedy that is AIDS and of the fight for understanding and hope that its victims face daily."

Early Sunday afternoon, billionaire developer Donald J. Trump and Michael Jackson arrived by limo at Jeanne White's home on a quiet residential street in Cicero, a community of 4,500. They had flown in Jackson's plane from Atlantic City, where Jackson had been an opening weekend guest at Trump's Taj Mahal casino.

Lee Solters, a Jackson spokesman, said: "Michael Jackson asked Donald Trump if he'd please come with him." Solters said Jackson told him: "Ryan was a very good friend of mine. I'm too overcome with grief to talk about it."

Parked on the lawn of the Whites' cream-colored, shingled house was a customized red 1987 Ford Mustang given him last summer by Jackson. It was banked with floral arrangements sent by well-wishers.

Jackson and Elton John, who arrived later, didn't speak to the large media contingent outside the house. But both signed autographs on slips of paper sent in by neighborhood teen-agers and by members of Cicero's 15-member police force, most of whom had been dispatched to the home. Jackson stayed with the family for four hours.

Throughout his last illness, public interest in White had been so great that the hospital had installed a toll-free 800 line with a recorded message updating his condition. Handling 73 calls an hour, the line was overburdened.

In an extraordinary way, White had touched people from all walks of life. "Ryan had more courage than most people amass in a lifetime," said Carrie Van Dyke, a former Indianapolis television newswoman who has been speaking for the White family at their request. In five years, she said: "He gained the wisdom some people never gain."

Said Kleiman: "He took (life), did the best he could with it, ran with it." Staff writer Eric Harrison and researcher Tracy Shryer in Chicago contributed to this story.

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