Each day savored by the man who has defied death

January 20, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

When the doctors told Jim Mustard, the WBAL-TV news reporter, that he had bone cancer, they gave him six months to live. That was 10 years ago. When they told him he had AIDS, once again they gave him six months to live. That was two years ago.

Now he's sitting in his apartment, monitoring the televised earthquake reports out of California, checking the frozen world beyond his window, and wondering out loud exactly how it is that he's still alive.

"I don't get it," he says, voice full of wonder. "The bone cancer's been kind of quiet. With my immune system down, you'd think the cancer would go berserk. I shouldn't be here. I mean, I'm grateful to be alive, but I really expected to be buried by now."

He sounds as if he's analyzing himself with a newsman's objectivity. He's not. Until seven months ago, when Mustard, 49, retired from WBAL after two decades in front of the camera, he wasn't just one of the most insightful of reporters, but a man of deep, intense political passions.

Some of them now translate to his own circumstances: the cruel, willful avoidance of AIDS research in the Reagan-Bush years; conservative assaults on gays; attempts by members of the religious right to interpret AIDS as some sort of moral gesture by a vengeful God.

"They talk of a religion based on love and caring," says Mustard, mentioning a few prominent names from the political/religious right. "I have 24 friends with AIDS, and 11 of them have died. They were in their 20s and 30s. You want to tell me where the love and caring is? These people are filled with murder, not with caring."

Friends of Mustard's have always marveled at the intense expressiveness of his beliefs. They talk of a man who spends every Fourth of July reading the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. It's his way of reminding himself of the things that make the country great. If you want to bring a tear to his eye, start talking about the things written at the base of the Statue of Liberty.

"He's incredibly moved by the power of this country when he thinks it's being moral," says a friend. "He sees us as a beacon. It's not a reflexive, conservative thing; it's all about compassion, which ties in with this issue of gays.

"He simply doesn't understand why gay men and women aren't treated with the same respect as anyone else in this country. This country is about being who you are, not hiding your thoughts from the Thought Police."

Twice, Mustard has survived pneumonia. He's lost about 30 pounds in six months. Friends check on him every day. There are times, he says, when he feels all right and can rouse himself to go out to lunch with old pals. But he watches television news every night, and a piece of him still wishes he could get back into the reporting game.

Despite the debilitating effects of AIDS, he was working four days a week at Channel 11 until last June. He'd work two days, then go home and sleep for 16 hours at a clip. He finally decided to quit from exhaustion, a sense that "I didn't want to sacrifice the news for my fatigue."

It was a pretty wrenching resignation. For Mustard, journalism always contained the elements of a moral crusade, a sense that democracy can't survive without an informed citizenry. His heroes were the serious TV news people. Edward R. Murrow was a god.

Now he's watching the news from the sidelines, still getting worked up, still analyzing the issues and still critiquing the coverage.

"I'm really a lucky guy," he says. He's talking about the course of a lifetime. Born prematurely, Jim Mustard weighed 1.3 pounds at birth. Nobody expected him to survive. He lived in a small Pennsylvania town, never thinking he'd grow up to cover important leaders of government.

And, of course, 10 years ago, no one who knew him imagined he'd still be here.

"Life's a journey to be enjoyed, not an agony to be endured," Mustard was saying now. "Life is God's gift to us, and our gift back is what we do with it. I've tried to make the most of what I have."

If you watched Jim Mustard's work over his years on television, you know that he did marvelous things. If you've watched him live his life, refusing to fade quietly away, you know that he's been an inspiration.

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