By Ken de la Bastide
Tribune enterprise editor
Kokomo — Twenty-six years ago, Kokomo and Howard County were in the midst of an AIDS discussion with the Western School Corp. over the decision not to allow Ryan White to attend classes.
White, a hemophiliac, acquired the AIDS virus through an injection of contaminated factor VIII, a protein in blood plasma that helps blood to clot. He soon became the human face for the AIDS epidemic that was sweeping the country.
White was barred from attending classes, but following several legal actions, he was eventually allowed to return to Western Middle School. His family moved to Cicero in 1987 and White died in 1990. He would have turned 40 years old on Dec. 6.
For World AIDS Day, the BBC will air a special radio broadcast today on the history of the Ryan White story in Howard County. The special is titled “Witness: The story of our times told by the people who were there.”
BBC reporters interviewed several people in Kokomo for the broadcast. Among them was Wanda (Bowen) Bilodeau, who grew up across the street from the White family.
She said her brother, Heath, was Ryan’s best friend.
“He was at our house,” Bilodeau said of White. “He ate with us, swam in our pool. He had a crush on me and would send me Valentine’s Day cards.”
Bilodeau said when White returned to school he was in high school, and she ate lunch with him on a daily basis.
“We made sure he wasn’t harassed,” she said. “My brother got picked on a lot.”
Bilodeau said when the Whites moved into the neighborhood, he was just Ryan White.
“All of a sudden there was this outpouring of hatred, just because he was sick,” she said. “We wondered what was wrong with people.”
Bilodeau said despite allegations, the White family had support from Howard County residents, from the church they attended and co-workers of White’s mother at Delphi Electronics & Safety.
“So many people cared about Ryan,” she said. “There were a lot of giving people.”
Bilodeau said when the Whites moved to Cicero they made a clean break from the Kokomo community.
“He was accepted with open arms in Cicero,” she said. “There was more information about AIDS, more education about the disease.”
Bilodeau was also one of 20 people interviewed for the Ryan White Oral History Project undertaken by the Howard County Historical Society.
The project’s mission was to collect, preserve and share interviews that reflect diverse community perspectives on a painful, controversial issue that over the years has received intense local, national and international attention.
Recordings and transcripts of the interviews are available at the Howard County Local History Archives at 1200 W. Sycamore St.
“We wanted a broad spectrum,” Allen Safianow, professor emeritus at Indiana University Kokomo, chairman of the project, said Wednesday. “We wanted different points of view. We spent a lot of time deciding who to interview; some we couldn’t find and others refused.”
Safianow said while researching the project, he was surprised to learn that there was a counter petition by students at Western Middle School in support of allowing White to attend classes.
“It didn’t get as much attention as the petition by parents to keep Ryan out of school,” he said.
Safianow said there is a lot of inaccurate information available on the Internet, including that White was expelled from school.
He said Western school officials were pioneers in establishing universal procedures on how to deal with blood spills and bodily fluids.
“It played an educational role in the state and nation,” Safianow said.
More than a quarter of a century after the events unfolded, Safianow said the way people look back on the White controversy depends on the individual.
“Most people were reflective,” he said. “There is now a general recognition about how AIDS is spread that has changed over the years.
“Based on the interviews, parents were concerned about other children and at the time made the right decision,” Safianow said. “Some officials went through a learning process. They made two conclusions that the risk was not as great as at first suspected and that it would be difficult for Western to win a legal case. They knew adjustments would have to be made.”
Safianow said 1985 and 1986 were pivotal years in terms of when people gained an education about AIDS. He said the evidence at the time was conflicting and that parents were coming to different conclusions based on their own research.
“There is no doubt people responded in a terrible way,” he said. “It was a painful experience for Ryan and his family.”
Safianow said he found it challenging during the project to present historical information.
“The oral history is a valuable tool,” he said. “It gives differing perspectives.
“We wanted the oral history to be fair. We hope this will be a positive for the community. The historical society was supportive of the project, which is not a pleasant story to tell.”
• Ken de la Bastide is the Kokomo Tribune enterprise editor. He can be reached at 765-454-8580 or via e-mail at email@example.com