Published January 29th, 2023 at 6:00 AM
On the last Sunday of February 1989, I was home eating a pre-church breakfast and giving the morning newspaper a quick read. I was startled to discover the news that my friend Ted Warmbold had died.
We were students together at the University of Missouri School of Journalism and I later worked with him on the Gannett newspapers in Rochester, New York. Ted, 45 at the time of his death, was chief editor of the San Antonio Light.
Ted’s newspaper reported he died after a “10-day struggle with cryptococcal meningitis, an AIDS-related disease.” At the time, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome was limited almost entirely to gay males. Ted? He was married to my friend Carolyn Nizzi, another Mizzou journalism school graduate. I attended their wedding in Texas and later even lived with them briefly in Rochester until the apartment I had rented became available for occupancy.
So many questions. Why had Ted’s paper named what killed him? How did he get AIDS? What did Carolyn know? Just who was this funny, ambitious, wise journalist I thought I knew? (It turned out that Ted lived something of a secret life as a folk-art collector, making buying trips to Mexico, where he could be more open about his sexuality.)
Ted’s death led me to become active in our congregation’s AIDS ministry, formed some months after Ted’s death. It did much good for many years, though today that ministry no longer exists except through the ongoing involvement in various ways by some of the individuals, including me, who were part of it.
But the recent Kansas City PBS documentary, “AIDS in KC,” about how Kansas Citians handled the beginning of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s reminded me of the years of volunteer work that I and others did. (I am anxious to see the follow-up documentary, due out this spring.)
Our AIDS ministry goal was to be a voice of compassion at a time when various Christian sources were spewing repulsive condemnation of what we now call the LGBTQ+ community. Some of those churches and their leaders declared that AIDS was God’s way of punishing people for being gay.
That idea was then — and remains today — an outrageous theological conclusion rooted in a shoddy misreading of the Bible, as I explain in this essay found on my “Faith Matters” blog.
Because our congregation was determined to help in the AIDS crisis but not pour vengeful gasoline on an already frightening fire, we first tried to educate our own members — and, later, other congregations — about AIDS. Thanks to that work, when our church organist decided to come out as a gay man, church members surrounded him with love and care, not vicious rhetoric.
Next, we volunteered for several years to visit AIDS patients in a Kansas City nursing home whose owner had created a separate wing for them. In the process, I was moved to write a series of poems about people I knew there who died of AIDS. Here’s one:
When he could see me,
before his pinched world
began to shift about
and bruise him on his walks,
he looked, he said,
through the center
of a narrowing tunnel
filled with dancing spots,
floaters, stars and dots.
He told me one day
I was as tall as his pain.
When it was clear that this nursing home couldn’t handle everyone with AIDS in our city who needed skilled nursing care, our group searched with others for an alternative. We found an empty nursing home at 83rd and Main streets that became Hope Care Center, which opened in 1996 and still operates today as a 16-bed facility for people with HIV and AIDS.
I recall working in the basement of that structure to help put up sheet rock for the walls of what would become Hope Care’s administrative offices. Thank God I was working with volunteers (like the late John Brooks) who knew what they were doing.
For quite a few years after that, I’d be at Hope Care weekly as a volunteer to play Bingo with residents. That ended at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and hasn’t yet resumed.
AIDS today has become a long-term, manageable condition, not the death sentence it once was. So, give thanks for the scientists who have continued to work on medicines that have made that possible, beginning with the first available one, AZT, on which one of my brothers-in-law worked as a biochemist.
It took the federal government far too long to respond effectively to the AIDS crisis, as even Dr. Anthony Fauci, the now-retired top federal infectious diseases official, acknowledges. That and other early failures were described in the book “And the Band Played On,” by Randy Shilts.
But as the disease has changed, Kansas Citians haven’t walked away from the people with AIDS or from agencies designed to help them live with it. The AIDS Service Foundation, which sponsors the annual AIDS Walk, has been a source of funding and community support from the beginning. Such agencies as the former Good Samaritan Project and such dedicated physicians as Sharon Lee were crucial in all of this for many years. And organizations such as Save, Inc. and KC Care Health Center have stayed the course.
I still miss Ted Warmbold, of course. And I miss seeing his sister, Judy, a nun who also did AIDS work in Kansas City for many years and who now lives in St. Louis, where she and Ted grew up. I also miss Harry, Steve, Kip, Dean, Della and a long list of people who perished of this evil disease.
But I’m glad that Kansas City people of faith were among those who offered early support and love to people suffering from AIDS, thus making their journey a little more bearable.
And I know Ted would applaud that, too.
Bill Tammeus, an award-winning columnist formerly with The Kansas City Star, writes the “Faith Matters” blog for The Star’s website, book reviews for The National Catholic Reporter and for The Presbyterian Outlook. His latest book is “Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety.” Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.