(ARCADIA, Ind.) – Three decades ago, a teenager’s fight to attend school drew international attention to Indiana, and gave a face to the AIDS epidemic. Today, the state’s newest historical marker explains the legacy of Ryan White.
White’s three-year court battle with the Western Howard County Schools ended when the family moved from Kokomo to Cicero and enrolled him without incident at Hamilton Heights High School. The old high school is now the district’s middle school, and several of White’s former classmates joined family members and today’s middle schoolers to unveil a historical marker recounting his story, from the court fight to White’s legacy in raising awareness of the disease. The Ryan White CARE Act, signed into law by President George H.W. Bush months after White’s death in 1990, continues to provide federal funding for HIV research.
While HIV today is largely a treatable, chronic condition, in the 1980s it remained a death sentence, and an ailment poorly understood by the general public. Western’s resistance to allowing him to attend school was accompanied by ugliness in the community — his mother Jeanne White-Ginder recalls the family endured everything from shouted taunts of “you’re gonna die” to slashed tires and a bullet fired into the house.
The sale of movie rights to Ryan’s story allowed the family to move to Cicero, but White-Ginder recalls she doubted anything would change. Instead, she says, “Our lives changed the day we moved in.” The next day, she says, Ryan’s new classmates flocked to the house so he’d know people on the first day of school. Their parents came too, to offer whatever help the family needed.
State Representative Tony J. Cook (R-Cicero) was Hamilton Heights superintendent at the time. He says the discrimination and abuse Ryan faced stemmed from fear and uncertainty, and the school district set out to counter it with information, holding a series of town meetings and enlisting student council leaders to explain how HIV was, and wasn’t, transmitted.
Woodrow Myers, now a Democratic candidate for governor, was Republican Governor Robert Orr’s state health commissioner at the time. He recalls tousling White’s hair in front of news cameras, to send the message there was nothing to fear from casual contact.
White attended Hamilton Heights for three years until his death at age 18. White-Ginder says while the court fight with Western gave him a reason to live, at Hamilton Heights, “the other kids kept him alive.” She says his time there gave him what she, Cook and Myers recall he wanted all along: to be treated as a normal teenager.
Hamilton Heights awarded White a posthumous diploma in 1991, and used unsolicited donations which poured into the school to establish a scholarship fund the same year, for students planning to pursue degrees in health and medicine. The fund has awarded more than 60-thousand dollars in scholarships. Treasurer Kim Kaiser says the fund received an unexpected financial boost from a man who visited the school one day, asking questions about White. Years later, she learned the man had died — and had named the scholarship fund as the beneficiary of two life insurance policies.
Ryan White’s mother Jeanne White-Ginder (center) and sister Andrea with former state health commissioner Woodrow Myers after the unveiling of White’s historical marker (Photo: Eric Berman/WIBC)