For better or worse, Ryan White’s battle against AIDS in the 1980s will forever be linked to the history of Howard County.
White was born in Kokomo in 1971,
suffering from severe hemophilia, which prevented his blood from coagulating. He was then diagnosed with AIDS in 1984 as a result of a blood transfusion.
White and Howard County became the spotlight for national media coverage when, in June 1985, he was denied re-admittance to Western Middle School in Russiaville by the superintendent.
At the time, little was known about AIDS and there were conflicting medical reports about how the disease spread. A petition was signed by the parents of almost 33 percent of school children at Western and by 50 teachers seeking to keep White from attending school.
The Western School Board voted to ban White from attending the Howard County school as word of White’s disease spread. The ban was put in place despite determinations by the Howard County Health Department and Indiana State Board of Health that White should be permitted to attend school.
As a result of the ban, the White family filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the ban. The national news media descended on Howard County, relating the story of a then 14-year-old boy with AIDS who was banned from attending public school.
The Indiana Department of Education ruled in November 1985 that the school system had to follow the Board of Health guidelines and allow White to attend classes.
White attended school during the 1986-1987 school year, but was required to eat with disposable utensils and use a separate bathroom.
The family moved in 1987 to Hamilton County, where White attended Hamilton Heights High School.
Thrust into the national spotlight, White was befriended by celebrities Elton John, Michael Jackson, John Mellencamp and sports figures, including Bobby Knight and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He was a frequent guest on TV talk shows and a made-for-television movie was filmed in 1989 about White’s life.
In 1988, he addressed President Ronald Reagan’s AIDS Commission, pointing out the difference AIDS education made in his experiences in Howard and Hamilton counties.
White entered Riley Hospital for Children on March 29, 1990, with a respiratory infection and died on Palm Sunday.
A re-creation of White’s bedroom, as it was the day he last left for the hospital, is on display at the Indianapolis Children’s Museum as part of its permanent “Power of Children” exhibit.
During an interview with the Kokomo Tribune in 2006, his mother, Jeannie Ginder-White, said Kokomo should be proud of her son.
“He is a part of history here,” she said. “There is always two sides to every story. They can be proud of how he handled himself.”
Ginder-White said she holds no animosity toward her hometown.
“I don’t think that we’re blaming anybody from Kokomo, Western or anybody else,” Ginder-White said. “I think I did what I had to do and they did what they felt they had to do. It was a matter of no education at the time; a matter of getting the education to people and there was a lot of controversy over that education.”