Mourners recall AIDS activist's tender tenacity Founder of the Alternative mourned

July 03, 1992|By David Simon | David Simon,Staff Writer

"From my window, I watch the city far below," Bill Urban wrote from his room in Osler 8, the AIDS wing of Johns Hopkins Hospital. "Don't they know, I thought. Don't they even care that people are dying . . . My friends are dying about me and I cannot help but take it personally that they are all leaving me behind."

But last night in the Mount Vernon area of Baltimore, it was William James Gregory Urban who left his friends behind -- nearly 200 of them, who gathered at First and Franklin Street Presbyterian Church to mourn the June 24 death of the 36-year-old journalist and founder of the Baltimore Alternative, a monthly advocate for gay and lesbian rights and the fight against acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

It was one more early death for a part of Baltimore that has grown numb to early death, one more memorial remembrance in a community that has had its fill of remembrances. But in this instance, the memorial was touched by the very words of the man being mourned.

"Memory is the gift of God," Rabbi Shira Lander told the gathering. "Inthe works of his mind, William James Urban, the creator, survives."

It was those works that Gary Lambert, the Alternative's associate editor, offered in his eulogy to describe Mr. Urban, who had continued to make his newspaper's monthly deadlines while struggling with AIDS-related illnesses for much of the last six years.

"There is no sanctuary from the social and political implications of AIDS," Mr. Lambert said, reading from Mr. Urban's writings. "The stigma is always there to haunt me."

Nonetheless, the Baltimore journalist chose to publicly acknowledge the disease and serve as an activist in a variety of civic, gay and AIDS service groups. "I went public with my illness so others might feel more comfortable," Mr. Urban wrote. "I wanted to make AIDS as commonplace as cancer."

That public stance, coupled with Mr. Urban's advocacy, led to hate mail and abusive phone calls, harassment in his Remington neighborhood and even derision in some quarters of the gay community, according to Mr. Lambert, who added, "He never expressed his fear or his despair, at least not to me."

The mourners who gathered for last night's service included representatives of the city government, gay and lesbian community groups, AIDS service organizations and medical institutions. All of them seemed to have fond memories of Mr. Urban's insistent advocacy.

"I'll never see the prophet Elijah take on Jezebel, but I've had the high privilege of seeing Bill Urban on a tirade and that's enough," recalled John McLucas, who worked with Mr. Urban in the AIDS Interfaith Network and on the board of the Chase-Brexton Clinic.

Mr. Lambert said that, despite his advocacy, Mr. Urban took pride in making the Alternative, which he founded in 1986, into a newspaper that would cover the gay community and the AIDS epidemic comprehensively, in a way that would present readers with facts and dispassionate analysis, allowing them to form their own opinions. "I want this paper to be read by everybody," he said. "Gay people, straight people, politicians."

Although his illness severely weakened him in his last months, Mr. Urban lived long enough to see the Alternative publish its most successful edition, last month's Gay Pride issue, under the direction of editor Charles Mueller, who had been Mr. Urban's companion for a decade.

The newspaper and Mr. Mueller were the two things that kept Mr. Urban fighting, friends said. In her eulogy, Ann Gordon reminded Mr. Urban's friends of all the occasions when it seemed AIDS was ready to claim him. The telephone would ring and people would "hear that Bill is really sick this time. . . . Three days later, he'd be back at the Alternative. He and Charlie never missed a deadline."

At last night's service, which ended with a silent candlelight vigil through the midtown area, speaker after speaker urged the gathering to recommit themselves to remembering Mr. Urban by battling the AIDS epidemic and anti-gay bias.

"I have lost so many friends that I have come to truly value those who are still alive," Mr. Urban wrote. "I want to be remembered for my compassion, not my brashness. Remembered for my intellect and generosity."

And last night, he was.

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