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New book salutes Indiana boy who humanized AIDS patients

Updated on April 10, 2015

Retelling an inspiring saga

A new book from the Indiana Historical Society traces the short, but sterling, life of Ryan White, who fought AIDS and shed light on the disease.
A new book from the Indiana Historical Society traces the short, but sterling, life of Ryan White, who fought AIDS and shed light on the disease. | Source

Facing adversity with courage

He became a famous spokesman for those battling the stigma of AIDS.
Ryan White evolved into a champion of understanding and compassion as an unassuming kid from small-town America.
Celebrities such as Michael Jackson and Elton John got to know him personally.
Elton John visited him when he was hospitalized.
Ryan was on the cover of People magazine.
He was photographed with President Ronald Reagan and wife, Nancy.
Ryan also was photographed getting a hug from Nancy Reagan.
On April 8, 1990, Ryan succumbed to Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome at the age of 18.
The youth from Kokomo, Ind., garnered international attention during his court fight to attend school after being diagnosed at the age of 13.
“He always sought normalcy; he wanted to go to school like normal kids,” said Nelson Price, author of “The Quiet Hero: A Life of Ryan White” (Indiana Historical Society Press; $17.95)
Released this spring, the generously illustrated book recounts the amazing story of a Midwest boy who changed the way many viewed AIDS.
Ryan contracted the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS after receiving tainted blood-based medicinal agents that were used to treat the hemophilia he was afflicted with at birth.
After being diagnosed with the deadly disease, Ryan made headlines with his legal fight to go to school, which included tangling with his hometown school corporation and school board.
After getting clearance from the Indiana Department of Education and county health officials, Ryan was able to attend one day of class in February 1986.
His arrival was greeted by a high rate of absenteeism among the other students.
That was his only day in class for a while as a citizens group secured a restraining order that put him back on the outside, according to “The Quiet Hero: A Life of Ryan White.”
A subsequent higher-court eventually sided with Ryan, allowing him to return to middle school in April of that year.
Price reports in his book that community resistance took the form of “beer cans, fast-food cartons, whiskey bottles, and other trash” on the lawn of the White family’s house on Webster Street in Kokomo.
“He wanted to be outside playing with normal kids,” related Price, who covered Ryan’s journey as a reporter and columnist for The Indianapolis News.
The boy who liked X-Men and Spider Man comic books would become one of the most prominent faces of AIDS education and tolerance -- a feat that could be tied to his eloquent communication skills, according to Price.
“He had an extraordinary ability to communicate -- to cut to the chase of an issue in a short, punchy way,” said Price, the author of several Indiana-themed books and radio host of “Hoosier History Live” on WICR-FM (88.7).
“I just want to tell everyone something: Please don’t hate us,” Ryan said at a 1987 press conference in an Indiana high school, according to Price’s book.
Ryan’s statement referred to those burdened with AIDS.
Since Ryan’s death occurred 25 years ago, the life he led is unknown, or largely unknown, to many current-day youths.
“The Quiet Hero: A Life of Ryan White” is designed to help change that, according to Ray E. Boomhower, senior editor at Indiana Historical Society Press.
“Ryan lived a life that more people should know about,” said Boomhower, who co-edited the book with IHS Press editor Kathy Breen. “I hope this book is picked up by middle-school, high school and college-age students.”
The hardships endured by Ryan White included slurs at school, vandalism of his locker and the start-up of a private school by some parents who didn’t want their children attending Ryan’s school.
A group called Concerned Citizens of Kokomo fought Ryan’s attendance in school with court action.
Price notes that when Ryan was diagnosed, he was given about six months to live.
But the Hoosier kid ended up living for more than five years.
Price was at Ryan’s home on the day the youth passed away at an Indianapolis hospital: April 8, 1990.
Toward the end, Ryan was suffering in various ways, including the discomfort of body sores and a persistently swollen stomach.
At the time he died, the White family was living in the more accommodating community of Cicero, Ind.
“I was at the house with the media horde, and Michael Jackson arrived, Donald Trump arrived -- it was very surreal,” Price said, recalling the gloomy scene immediately after Ryan‘s death. “There was just a throng of grief-stricken high school classmates, neighbors, friends, gawkers.”
A sporty car became an unusual memorial after Ryan died.
“The red Mustang that Michael Jackson had given Ryan was wheeled out onto the front lawn of the Whites' house as kind of a makeshift memorial to Ryan,” Price recounted. “People placed flowers and cards and letters and farewell gifts around that Mustang.”
Price’s new 135-page book is especially meant, and written, to appeal to a young market, including students in elementary school. The book is part of the Indiana Historical Society Press’ Youth Biography Series.

Putting a human face on AIDS

Ryan White is often touted for his communication skills that helped fight misconceptions of AIDS, and how it was spread.
Ryan White is often touted for his communication skills that helped fight misconceptions of AIDS, and how it was spread. | Source

A special symbol of love

Ryan White, a Hoosier, poses with the red Ford Mustang that pop superstar Michael Jackson bought for him.
Ryan White, a Hoosier, poses with the red Ford Mustang that pop superstar Michael Jackson bought for him. | Source


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