New Ryan White biography emphasizes his coping skills 

click to enlarge The Quiet Hero: A Life Of Ryan White - By Nelson Price - Indiana Historical Society Press
  • The Quiet Hero: A Life Of Ryan White
    By Nelson Price
    Indiana Historical Society Press

Employing the ebullient conversational style that marked his newspaper career as a feature writer for The Indianapolis News and later The Star, Nelson Price celebrates Ryan White's "gift for living" in a new biography — The Quiet Hero: A Life of Ryan White — published 25 years after White's death on April 8, 1990.

"The book provides a much fuller picture of how White's crusade unfolded and the lives that he impacted, and features little-known or unreported stories and nuances," Price tells NUVO, qualifying that "there are no bombshells."

Price begins his story in 1985, when the thirteen-year-old White was diagnosed with AIDS contracted "from contaminated blood-based products used to treat his hemophilia." He soon asserted his right "to be a normal kid" and go back to school. With ignorance at high speed, the situation turned ugly, lawsuits were filed, national media picked up the story and national personalities entered the scene.

"Panic over AIDS even affected friends of Ryan," Price says. "They were called names just for supporting him. Trash repeatedly was dumped on the White's lawn, citizens group filed lawsuit to block him from attending school. People spread ugly rumors that he was seen spitting on grapes in supermarkets and trying to spread his disease."

On the other hand, "Some observers have used a 'broad brush' when depicting Kokomo and Cicero," Price continues. "Some in Kokomo actually supported the family and ome school officials strove to accommodate Ryan, but a phone hookup from home didn't work well. This was long before Skype."

Price details how Michael Jackson reached out to White and his family, and how Elton John came into the picture after hearing a quote from White. John made it possible for White, along with his mother and sister, to move to the friendlier town of Cicero in Hamilton County. Price shows the effects of national media picking up this positive story and how Ryan and his classmates became national advocates for informed, compassionate caretaking for people diagnosed with AIDS.

Throughout The Quiet Hero, Price shows how White's desire to just be a kid like every other kid humanized people with AIDS. The book is full of uplifting quotes about Ryan and from him. "He puts life in perspective," said Jill Stewart, a teen-age neighbor in Cicero. "Ryan wanted to show you could live with AIDS," affirmed his mother Jeanne White. "No one was going to make any kind of victim out of me," White said of himself.

White felt his mission was not only to educate others about AIDS but also to inspire: "You will die one day too. It's how you live your life that counts," he replied to a question about "being afraid to die."

In constant pain from the hemophilia as well as AIDS, Ryan learned how to cope. His solution is one applicable to everyone — distract yourself by doing something else, and keep changing the activities so your mind isn't dwelling on the pain but on accomplishing something.

Full of life-affirming photographs, The Quiet Hero makes Ryan's story current. "Greg Louganis, considered the best diver in Olympic history, was an early celebrity supporter," says Price. "Coincidentally with periodically writing about Ryan, I was covering swimming and diving during the1987 Pan Am Games, so I was at the IU Natatorium when Greg gave one of his two Pan Am gold medals to Ryan. He called Ryan a hero."

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Rita Kohn

Rita Kohn

Rita Kohn has been covering craft beer and the arts for NUVO for two decades. She’s the author of True Brew: A Guide to Craft Beer in Indiana.

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