A new book written by an Indianapolis attorney explores a tumultuous time in Kokomo’s history when the city found itself embroiled in the national HIV/AIDS crisis at the same time it lost one of its largest employers.
“Blood and Steel: Ryan White, the AIDS Crisis and Deindustrialization in Kokomo, Indiana,” written by Indianapolis attorney Ruth Reichard and published this past April by McFarland & Company, dives into the relationship between three major issues and events — the filing of bankruptcy and subsequent closure of Continental Steel, the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and Ryan White’s fight to attend school in Howard County — that consistently made headlines in the city of Firsts and nationwide during the ‘80s.
The book “tells the story of a fearful time as people in the heartland endured massive layoffs, coped with a lethal new disease and discovered a legacy of toxic waste….this book offers a fuller accounting of the challenges that one city reckoned with during this tumultuous period.” according to the publisher’s book description.
Reichard goes into detail in each of the three issues, documenting the context and causes and effect for each — from the mismanagement of a decades-long steel giant that led to its collapse and nearly 1,000 workers without a job and pensions, to the factor VIII treatment Ryan White received for his hemophilia that ultimately gave him HIV/AIDS and how the community dealt with both.
“People think the economy suffered a shock in 2008, but you can kinda see the foreshadowing in the 1980s, with deindustrialization and the conglomerates, especially with the steel industry,” Reichard said. “I write about how a lot of the steel manufacturers ended up merging, being bought out and consolidating, and when you have that paired with a lot of foreign competition, there’s not a lot of hope.”
Reichard spent her weekends for the past decade researching and writing the novel, using the Howard County Historical Society’s Ryan White Oral History Project, newspaper articles, interview with Ryan White’s mother Jeanne and letters received by White and his family that are now held at Indianapolis Children’s Museum, as her main primary sources.
The book was born out of her doctoral dissertation she completed to receive her doctorate in U.S. History. Like projects often do, Reichard found her idea by accident when she realized, while browsing through the county historical society’s Ryan White collection and realizing that at the same time White was being ostracized at his school and in his hometown, Continental Steel was also going through bankruptcy.
“This is a really good case study on how a city handles adversity,” Reichard said. “Kokomo has proven itself to be very resilient in that respect, but, boy, did it go through a rough patch in the mid-to-late 1980s…It’s slogan is ‘City of Firsts,’ but it could also be ‘Dust it off.’”
The city and its residents take pride in their ability to bounce back from both economic and natural disasters. Most recently, after going through two significant tornadoes in 2013 and 2016, the slogan #KokomoStrong was created as a rallying cry for those affected and the city as a whole as it rebuilt damaged homes and buildings.
The city’s history with Ryan White and his family is more forgotten, though, or at very least pushed aside and not publicly talked about much. When an historical marker for White was dedicated in 2019, it was erected outside Hamilton Heights Middle School in Arcadia in the community and school system that accepted White after his family fled Kokomo.
Reichard said, though, she doesn’t want any Kokomo resident who reads her book to see it as negative toward the city, but, rather, serve as a history lesson.
“I hope people use this book as a case study of resilience and memory,” she said. “People of Kokomo should be glad they’ve bounced back economically and also in terms of their image. Just as Ryan White is largely forgotten by younger generations, the name “Kokomo” doesn’t have any bad connotations, which is a good thing for Kokomo.”
A paperback of “Blood and Steel” can be bought at https://mcfarlandbooks.com/product/blood-and-steel. The e-book version can be bought in the Amazon Kindle Store or wherever e-books can be purchased.