ARCADIA — Just like 32 years ago, family, friends and the news came out in droves to welcome Ryan White. Only this time it was for a historical marker placed in his memory outside of the school that welcomed him with open arms.
The Ryan White Indiana Historical Marker Dedication was Friday morning at Hamilton Heights Middle School, 420 W. North St., Arcadia. School staff and administrators, health officials, members of the Ryan White Committee and Ryan White Educational Scholarship and finally, White’s mother, Jeanne White-Ginder, spoke at the event.
The marker was placed outside the entrance of the middle school, which was Hamilton Heights High School during the years White attended from 1987 to early 1990. The marker reads:
“Kokomo native Ryan White was diagnosed with AIDS in 1984 from a contaminated hemophilia treatment. He faced intense discrimination from his community in a time of fear and misunderstanding about AIDS and was prevented from attending school in his hometown. Hamilton Heights High School welcomed White in 1987 after the family moved to Cicero. Anticipating White’s arrival, Hamilton Heights developed an acclaimed AIDS education campaign. White raised national AIDS awareness while battling the disease and spoke before the Presidential Commission on the HIV Epidemic. He was named Sagamore of the Wabash for his advocacy. The Ryan White CARE Act, providing funds for HIV/AIDS treatment, passed soon after his death.”
When White was diagnosed with AIDS in December 1984 after receiving a tainted blood transfusion, he was given an estimated three to six months to live, White-Ginder said. This diagnosis came at the height of fear and ignorance surrounding HIV/AIDS. White was ostracized at school and by the community. When he was not allowed to return to Western Middle School after he was diagnosed, a lawsuit and appeal process began. Nearly 117 of the 360 students’ parents and 50 teachers signed a petition against White returning to school.
The Indiana Board of Education ruled White must be allowed to attend school. Dr. Woodrow Myers, then-Indiana State Board of Health commissioner, and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said that White would not be a risk to the other students, but several parents withdrew their children and started an alternative school. The school system required White to eat with disposable utensils, use separate bathrooms and waived his required gym class.
“We lived AIDS every day,” she said. “People, kids, would say, ‘You know, you’re going to die Ryan White.’ ‘You’re a queer, Ryan White.’ We had our tires slashed, bullet holes went through our living room window. We were scared and I panicked, I didn’t know if we could get out but we had to.”
When the White family moved to Cicero, the change was immediately, White-Ginder said.
“As soon as we moved, kids stopped by to introduce themselves so Ryan would have friends at school. This was not typical,” she said. “For the first time, we were not fighting alone anymore.”
White began at Hamilton Heights on August 31, 1987. He was welcomed by the school’s principal Tony Cook, superintendent Bob Carnal and students who greeted him with hugs and shaking hands. Cook, now an Indiana State Representative, spoke at the dedication ceremony.
“Ryan became the antidote to a time of fear, homophobia and misinformation surrounding HIV/AIDS....” he said. “I want to thank the school, the parents of the students, and Ryan’s classmates who let Ryan into school without restrictions. He believed in us to provide him that normalcy of a high school experience Ryan so desperately sought.”
The school underwent three days of blood-borne illness training and education before White joined his classmates. Cook went on to thank White-Ginder and White’s sister, Andrea, for allowing him to try his hand at another school.
“Thank you for allowing us to experience Ryan,” he said. “His kindness, his humor, his inspiration stay with all of us. I treasure the time I’ve spent his family, and especially the time I spent with Ryan.”
Other speakers at the ceremony included Sir Elton John and Gov. Eric Holcomb via video messages.
Myers, the commissioner who fought to educate schools on why White should be able to return to school, spoke about meeting the teen.
“I sat next to him and explained the mechanics of blood-borne illness, and I sort of scruffed his head,” Myers said. “I wanted to show the world that here I am, board of health commissioner, unafraid to touch Ryan. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
The ceremony was closed by a tribute video featuring the song “Gone Too Soon” by Michael Jackson, which was written about White.
White-Ginder spent much of her speech thanking supporters, from her mother and daughter, to her son’s doctor, Dr. Klein, and his favorite nurse, Laura. She told stories about her teenage boy wanting to drive around in his mustang and work a poor-paying hourly job for the experience of such normal things. The mother kept her composure until the very end of her speech, when she spoke to her son directly.
“I love you, Ryan White,” she said. “I know I’ll see you again someday and you won’t have hemophilia or AIDS. Thank you.”