Whenever a new school year comes round, many kids resign themselves to let go of summer and its blissful freedom from classrooms, lockers, homework, cafeterias and quizzes. This is how fall always is in Indiana and elsewhere. Yet I once knew a Hoosier kid who fought a battle so he could be immersed in all that. He even went to court with his crusade. He ended up testifying on Capitol Hill, meeting pop music superstars, and making the cover of People magazine. Before he could go to his prom with his best friend, Heather, though, he died.
Ryan White was just 14 years old when I met him in early 1986 at the modest house in Kokomo he shared with his mom, Jeanne, and his kid sister, Andrea. Of the 160 notable Hoosiers featured in my book Indiana Legends: Famous Hoosiers from Johnny Appleseed to David Letterman, Ryan is foremost in my thoughts right now. Some of the explanation is seasonal, the start of another school year. Much of my focus is because I’m writing a biography of Ryan, who died of complications from AIDS in 1990 when he was 18 years old.
Ryan had AIDS for five years, nearly a third of his short life. Even before the AIDS diagnosis—and his crusade to attend Western Middle School in Russiaville—he was a hospital veteran. Shortly after his birth in 1971, he was diagnosed with severe hemophilia. (Ryan was infected with the AIDS virus as a result of contaminated products used to treat his blood-clotting disorder.) When I showed up at the Whites’ house to interview Ryan and Jeanne so soon after state education officials ordered his return to the classroom, I didn’t know what the heck to expect. That interview—during a period when emotions were so raw—included in Indiana Legends, along with updates that unfolded afterward.
At the end of this year, Ryan would be turning 41 years old. Unbelievable, isn’t it? One of his best friends at Hamilton Heights High School—which he eventually attended after the Whites moved to Cicero—has become a surgeon. She tells me she was inspired to pursue a medical career after watching Dr. Martin Kleiman, the infectious disease specialist at Riley Hospital for Children, treat her friend Ryan.Heather, the girl who planned to go to the prom with him, became a special ed teacher in Carmel. She’s married and the mother of three young children. I’ll bet Ryan would have enjoyed meeting her kids. To be honest, he didn’t always enjoy adults—not even when he had the thrill of standing at a podium and addressing tens of thousands of them. Audiences of kids, though, he liked. “Kids listen,” he explained.
This “kid pioneer” would have graduated from the classroom long ago. Surely the excitement of a new school year, though, would intrigue him, though, whatever line of work he would have pursued.