Ryan White

BACK TO SCHOOL: Media from around the country surround Ryan White as he returned to Western Middle School Feb. 21, 1986. Later that same day, an injunction was granted prohibiting him from going back.

In 1986, the year Ryan White’s fight to return to Western Middle School captivated the nation, parents in Queens, N.Y., protested outside a school when it appeared a student with AIDS would be enrolled.

That same year, the Plainfield school district adopted a policy to ban AIDS victims from school. And in Florida, the home of two hemophiliac brothers with AIDS was burned to the ground.

But nothing would replace the Ryan White saga in the national imagination, as the covers of People, Newsweek and the network news coverage that year would attest.

White, a photogenic teen with a nice smile and wistful eyes, became the humanizing face of AIDS that year.

The city of Kokomo, in contrast, became a symbol of bigotry and intolerance.

Twenty years later, many of those near the center of the national media storm that descended on Kokomo that year are still upset about the way the City of Firsts was portrayed.

“[The national media’s] whole goal was that they were going to show a bigoted town,” former Kokomo Tribune managing editor John Wiles said.

And it didn’t matter that White didn’t go to school in Kokomo, Wiles said.

“The national media kept running stories that said it was the Kokomo school system [that wouldn’t let Ryan come to school],” Wiles said. “It got to the point where the [Kokomo] schools threatened to sue.”

Particularly galling, Wiles said, was that even The Associated Press bureau in Indianapolis put out a story that claimed “His school in Kokomo, Indiana, barred him.”

“There are hundreds, if not thousands of such erroneous references in the stories generated by Ryan’s case,” complained former Kokomo Mayor Bob Sargent in a Feb. 1, 1989, response to ABC TV’s “The Ryan White Story.”

“If Kokomo is to be damned, at least let it be damned for what it did, and not for decisions neither it, nor its school system had any ability to make,” Sargent wrote in his response.

Tagged, but fairly tagged?

Ryan White grew up in Kokomo and lived here until the spring of 1987, when he, his mother, Jeanne, and his sister, Andrea, moved to Cicero.

In his 1991 autobiography, “Ryan White: My Own Story,” White said money received from the TV movie allowed the family to buy their new lakefront home.

He also said that in interviews, he usually referred to Kokomo as “where I lived before.”

And when he left the City of Firsts, he vowed never to return.

“In the end I did go back to Kokomo a few times, but only to see my relatives,” he wrote. “I was much happier when they came to see us [in Cicero].”

It’s difficult, looking back 20 years, to tell whether the media centered on Kokomo mainly because of the antipathy the White family expressed toward their former home, because of the Kokomo-based groups that fought so hard to keep him out of school, or because of incidents — some reported and some not — that happened while Ryan lived in Kokomo.

Then there are stories the national media largely ignored, like the fact Dr. Alan Adler, the Howard County health officer, risked public condemnation — and personal liability — by ruling White should be allowed to go to school.

For Ken Ferries, an Ivy Tech State College professor and former city attorney, the fact the Ryan White TV movie made no reference to Adler was telling.

“It took a lot of guts to say it’s OK for the kid to go to school,” Ferries said. “People were panicking. You’d go to the bathroom and they had the little paper inserts so no one would get AIDS. It was very courageous, what [Adler] did.”

But Kokomo was the center of the firestorm for a number of reasons, one of them being the Concerned Parents and Citizens of Children Attending Western School Corp., the group that sued to keep Ryan White out of school, and subsequently held their own children out of school when their suit failed.

And then there were Charlie Cropper and the late Dick Bronson, hosts of WWKI-FM’s “Male Call” morning call-in show. Calls to the show — many leveling personal attacks at Jeanne White-Ginder — as well as Dick and Charlie’s comments, angered the family.

“I not only oppose him going to school, I oppose him going out in public. I think he should be quarantined, and I’ve said it on the air many times,” Bronson told Indianapolis Monthly magazine in July 1986.

Cropper said things in Kokomo “got heated when it shouldn’t have,” but pointed, as nearly everyone interviewed for this story did, to the lack of information about the disease in 1986.

“Dick had a tendency to kind of go overboard at times, but it’s true they didn’t know anything about the disease, and he thought it was common sense to quarantine somebody with the disease until they knew more about it,” Cropper said.

“Other callers repeated all the rumors, and came up with some new ones,” Ryan White’s autobiography reads. “They had unusual theories on how I got AIDS. Mom hadn’t fed me properly. She didn’t clean. She was a trashy housekeeper. What’s more, she was lying. She knew perfectly well AIDS was infectious.”

In the end, Ryan credited several of his new school mates and school officials in Cicero for paving the way for a smooth transition into his new school.

But Wiles, the former Tribune editor, questioned how the national media could portray Kokomo as such a haven for prejudice when Cicero was only 30 miles away.

“How does bigotry change so quickly?” Wiles said. He also noted that despite the Tribune’s editorial stance — which never wavered — that White should be allowed to go to school, the Tribune suffered no loss of subscribers.

Ferries had his own opinion about why Cicero came across as more tolerant than Kokomo. After all, White had been back in school at Western for almost an entire year before moving to Cicero.

“Cicero had the benefit of a couple years of learning about the disease,” Ferries said. “And they also had the benefit of knowing what happened if you got on the wrong side of the media coverage. Kokomo got a raw deal, and that’s all I have to say about it.”

Playing up the issue?

There was little doubt that Ryan White enjoyed the celebrity that came through his fight with Western, just as there was little doubt that all of the trips — to make the movie, to see Elton John and Michael Jackson in Los Angeles, to appear on a popular Italian television show, etc. — alleviated some of the gloom of his lonely fight with AIDS.

“I was almost fourteen, and I had the birthday present I wanted most — although I definitely did want another dog too. I planned on being a real Kokomo First: the first kid with AIDS to speak out, fight back — and win,” the autobiography reads.

Many still, however, question whether Ryan White was exploited by various causes, once it became apparent how much sympathy had been generated by stories about his travails in Kokomo.

“As the thing went on, it grew out of proportion,” Cropper said. “I felt sorry for Ryan, especially because people used him to further their own cause.”

“It was a sad situation, and a lot of it was orchestrated, and again, a lot of it was to make money,” Wiles said. “I don’t blame the boy himself, I blame the adults around him. People used him to their advantage.”

Sargent said the blame for the way Kokomo was portrayed could probably be split “50-50” between the national media and actual events in Kokomo.

“Nobody [from the media] would listen. They wouldn’t get into the facts of the case. You just couldn’t get your story across,” Sargent said. “It was the first we knew [about AIDS] in Howard County, and we said, ‘Let’s address the problems and learn about it, and do what we needed to do about it.’ But getting that message out was like pushing an overloaded wagon up a hill.”

Scott Smith may be reached at (765) 454-8569 or via e-mail at scott.smith@kokomotribune.com

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