Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

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December 5, 2012

Project captures experiences of Ryan White controversy

Ryan White was diagnosed with AIDS in 1984. The next year, the 14-year-old was barred from attending Western Middle School because of the disease.

What happened next brought a firestorm of media attention to Kokomo, and thrust White and the city into international headlines.

For those who lived through the Ryan White saga, the story doesn’t seem like a piece of history, but a vital experience.

But Dave Broman, executive director of the Howard County Historical Society, said it is history, and it needs to be documented for future generations.

That’s why he said the historical society recently completed an extensive oral history project documenting the first-hand experiences of 22 people who were intimately involved with White and his place in Kokomo’s history.

“We knew there were things happening in our recent past that we needed to preserve for future generations,” Broman said. “We realized that on this story, we needed to collect information while people were still among us to do future generations a service, and provide some kind of primary source information about things that happened in our time.”

The project got underway in 2010, when Allen Safianow, chair of the society’s oral history committee, began compiling names of those who could offer real insight into the emotional atmosphere at the school and within the city.  

“We wanted to interview people who could give different perspectives on what happened,” he said. “That was our major goal, so our list was based on people who could give different points of view.”

By the time the project was complete two years later, the historical society had achieved its aim.

The list of interviewees included students, teachers, school board members and administrators, city leaders, clergy, family friends, parents, the press and a legal consultant.

In November, the undertaking caught the attention of the Indiana Historical Society, who ended up naming the Howard County Historical Society as the winner of the 2012 Indiana History Outstanding Project Award. The HCHS received the award on Monday in Indianapolis.

“The Ryan White story constitutes an important, unique part of Howard County’s history,” a pamphlet on the project states. “The project’s objective was to examine this event’s impact, both positive and negative, on the county and to illustrate that history must be understood in terms of its inevitable complexities and nuances.”

Amy Lamb, media relations manager for the Indiana Historical Society, said that was one of the central reasons the project received the award.

“The goal was not to decide if the community was right or wrong, but to show the complexity of the story, the division of the community, the negative and positive outcomes, and the fact that it happened in Howard County,” she said.

The project has also gained international attention. BBC World Service learned of the project as it sought someone to interview for its Dec. 1 World AIDS Day radio program.

Nelson Price, an author and journalist who covered the Ryan White controversy, has also used the interviews in writing a youth biography on White to be published by the Indiana Historical Society Press.

But Broman said the project has a purpose beyond history. He said he hopes it will bring some kind of closure to a community that still struggles with the controversy that surrounded White, Western Middle School and the city.

“Many people still have very strong emotional reactions to what happened,” he said. “It was an intense experience, and there’s a residue still left in this community ... What happened here could have happened anywhere. But the fact is that this is where it occurred, and it left a wound.”

Through the frank, open and authentic stories captured by the oral history project, Broman said the city may start to face its past.

“Through this project, it’s the beginning of an opportunity for the community to start to heal,” he said. “It was a difficult time in our history, but we’ve had 25 years to reflect on it, and maybe we can now begin to deal with it.”

The interviews and written transcripts of the interviews can be found at the Howard County Historical Society, 1200 W. Sycamore Street.

Carson Gerber is a Kokomo Tribune reporter. He may be reached by phone at 765-854-6739, or by email at carson.gerber@kokomotribune.com.

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