A historical record is among the bequests of people with AIDS

July 27, 1992|By Jane Meredith Adams | Jane Meredith Adams,Contributing Writer

SAN FRANCISCO -- When Craig Louis fell ill with AIDS, his friends took him out for Chinese food, raised $173.91 for him at a yard sale and played host to a barbecue for his parents. The also sat by his bed and kept track of his medication.

They chronicled their activities in a lively newsletter, printed on purple paper and distributed among friends, called the Craig Report.

"Craig's health has taken a turn," reads an entry in one issue. Then the inevitable news: "This is the Craig Report no one wanted to read, or write." Mr. Louis died May 25, 1988. That wasn't the end of the Craig Report, though.

As part of Mr. Louis' estate and as a piece of history in the age of AIDS, the Craig Report lives on in the archives of the Gay and Lesbian Historical Society here.

Roughly 12 years after the AIDS epidemic began, survivors here and across the country are beginning to recognize the enormous legacy of people with AIDS. This legacy includes both a potentially substantial source of income for AIDS organizations, which are the beneficiaries of homes and life insurance policies, and an important record of the thousands of gay men who have died in their 20s, 30s and early 40s.

Archives in major cities, including New York, Los Angeles and Washington, are beginning to collect the journals, papers and, in some cases, the memorabilia of people who have died of AIDS. In a tour of the Gay and Lesbian Historical Society here, where the Craig Report is stored, archivist Bill Walker felt compelled to model the purple and pink sequined jacket once worn by the disco singer Sylvester, who died of AIDS.

"You can't put this on and be somber," he said.

What is left behind includes the records of people who never achieved public fame, like Mr. Louis, and the papers of those who did, including Jim Foster, a San Francisco politician who addressed the Democratic National Convention as an openly gay man in 1972. His papers have been sent to a collection at Cornell University.

The Gay and Lesbian Archives of Washington, D.C., is a 2-year-old archive that is currently looking for donations from people with AIDS of letters, journals and books -- "the normal things that make an individual a human being," said Richard Eaton, archive director.

"There's a definite sense of wanting to preserve who we are and what our culture is," said Jim Mitulski, pastor of Metropolitan Community Church in San Francisco, a gay and lesbian congregation. "The passing of this generation is sad because we see an end to a chapter. We want to make sure it's not the last chapter."

The quality of what is left behind varies enormously, as does the ultimate destination of the material. In San Francisco, one man with AIDS died and passed on his closetful of Armani suits to another man with AIDS and a sense of style.

In the largest bequest ever made to an AIDS organization, Peter Pender, a San Franciscan who died of AIDS, recently left $2.26 million to the American Foundation for AIDS Research in New York, with $1 million more to come after the sale of the gay resort he owned.

But few people undertake the planning necessary to ensure that papers are kept and property donated.

"The vast numbers of people with AIDS have no wills or a will written before AIDS," said Eric Rofes, executive director of the Shanti Project, an AIDS organization in San Francisco.

"The most common experience I've had, and this is in a city as savvy as San Francisco, is that an AIDS organization spends years caring for a person with AIDS whose family refused to visit or care for him back in Omaha," said Mr. Rofes. "The person dies, and the estate goes to Mom and Dad in Omaha."

Often lost in these transactions are the letters, journals, posters and buttons that would interest historians of the gay community and the AIDS era.

On the financial side, many AIDS groups, fearful of offending those they serve, remain reluctant to talk about estate planning. "We're a baby in the planned giving field," said Debra Kent, director of development at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation.

Even without an official estate planning program, the foundation received $385,000 in bequests, about 11 percent of its $3.6 million budget, in fiscal 1991-1992.

As the epidemic grows faster than government funding, bequests are increasingly important to AIDS groups, said Ms. Kent, whose organization is cash-poor but rich in assets.

Many patients die drained of financial resources. Yet even those people who have little to leave behind, and their numbers are increasing, leave an imprint.

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