Remembering Ryan White--Ten years ago, the teenager succumbed to AIDS after a lengthy struggle that moved the nation

By Nancy Sidewater
Updated April 14, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

Ryan White never intended to be famous. He was not a glamorous leading man. He was not a magical basketball star. He was just a small-town kid with hemophilia who contracted HIV from a blood transfusion — and forever changed the face of AIDS.

On April 8, 1990, after a five-year battle, the 18-year-old White died of AIDS-related complications. An honor student, he first gained national attention in August 1985, when the school board in his hometown of Kokomo, Ind., barred him from attending classes, forcing White to complete the seventh grade from his bedroom, over the phone. His family was harassed and threatened. A bullet was once fired through their living room window.

During the yearlong court battle that ended in his reinstatement, White became a household name. ”His life and death was a huge eye-opening education for the public who had never dealt with anyone living or dying from HIV or AIDS. Everyone now knew someone with AIDS, and that was Ryan,” says Scott Seomin, a media director for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. The Whites moved to nearby Cicero, where Ryan was finally welcomed into a community.

Along with his newfound acceptance came life as a cause célèbre. Invited by Elton John to Disneyland, he was also flown to California to visit Michael Jackson’s Neverland ranch. There was even an ABC TV movie in 1989 called The Ryan White Story. But, despite the notoriety, it was White’s sad struggle — and untimely demise — that impressed upon America the need for education, and taught a nation that it was the illness that was frightening, not those who were suffering from it.

His funeral was attended by more than 1,500 mourners and broadcast live on CNN. Pallbearers included Phil Donahue, L.A. Raiders linebacker Howie Long, and John. Jackson sat next to Ryan’s mother and sister. First Lady Barbara Bush was there, as was Indiana governor Evan Bayh, who ordered the state’s flags to be flown at half-mast. The Cicero school choir sang ”That’s What Friends Are For” and John performed ”Skyline Pigeon.”

Soon after his death, Congress passed the Ryan White CARE Act, which provides federal funding for treatment and education to those affected by HIV. Last year, White’s mother, Jeanne (who created the now-defunct Ryan White Foundation in 1990), was appointed the national spokesperson for the Ryan White Project at AIDS Action, an advocacy group that lobbies for AIDS service organizations nationwide. ”Time has shown us it doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, black or white,” she says. ”It’s everybody’s disease, and now we know it is.”

Time Capsule: April 8, 1990
At the movies, a decade before she would get $20 million for Erin Brockovich, Julia Roberts becomes America’s favorite trashy dresser in Pretty Woman. On TV, 35 million Americans watch the ABC premiere of David Lynch’s eerie cult hit Twin Peaks. In music, fueled by the popularity of her ballad ”Nothing Compares 2 U,” bald Irish lass Sinead O’Connor catches fire on the Billboard charts. In the news, Farm Aid IV officials report that the benefit — featuring Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson, and Neil Young
has raised more than $1 million.