John Stuban, AIDS activist, dies

August 16, 1994|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,Sun Staff Writer

The man who was the heart of AIDS activism in Baltimore died yesterday after publicly and privately battling the disease for nearly a decade.

John T. Stuban, the founder of ACT UP Baltimore, part of a national network of groups that uses civil disobedience to press for greater efforts to combat acquired immune deficiency syndrome, died in his home from the disease. He was 38.

Mr. Stuban moved here from New York City in 1987, bringing with him an aggressive style and a sense of social justice that changed the face of local AIDS activism. In the ensuing years, he provided leadership to those involved in the movement and was unrelenting in pressuring local public officials to provide more AIDS care.

"He made AIDS visible," said Garey Lambert, founder of AIDS Action Baltimore. "He was an inspiration. He was upfront and in your face. He was the guy with the conscience, the guy who kept community scrutiny going on and on, and without that, there would be nothing done."

Under Mr. Stuban's tutelage, AIDS activists staged protests that included picketing at Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's home and delivering a coffin to City Hall. At one point, Mr. Stuban chained himself to city Health Department doors.

Although his tactics sometimes were considered offensive, many of those criticized by Mr. Stuban, including the mayor, came to respect him.

"Through his presence and perseverance he brought to our attention one of the most critical issues confronting us in Baltimore today. His death is a real loss for the community," said Mayor Schmoke, who is sending a memorial tribute to the Stuban family. "His was a powerful voice," the mayor said.

"We had come to think of John Stuban as synonymous with HIV/AIDS care because he was there always, he was everywhere. . . . I'm sure there will never be another one like him," said Brenda Pridgen, Baltimore AIDS coordinator. "But you don't want to mourn his life: His life is one to be celebrated."

AIDS activists say Mr. Stuban's death leaves a void in their ranks. His leadership came "in small things and big things," said Greg Satorie, vice president of the People With AIDS Coalition. "He was someone we rallied around. He gave a lot of people hope."

Born in 1956 in Berwick, Pa., the son of Vee and Ted Stuban, he grew up steeped in politics. His father, who is now retired, was a mayor, city council member and state legislator in Pennsylvania.

Mr. Stuban earned a bachelor's degree in political science at Hunter College in New York City, where he worked as a waiter and held a number of other jobs. He moved to Baltimore to join Dr. Merle McCann, who became his longtime companion. Dr. McCann is president of the board at Chase-Brexton, a Baltimore AIDS clinic, and a psychiatrist.

Mr. Stuban's stock in trade was a brash willingness to challenge the medical and political establishments coupled with a broad knowledge of AIDS and the politics of funding AIDS research.

"People stood in awe of his uncompromising fight on behalf of patients with HIV and AIDS, but what made John Stuban different is that he was the most well-versed and perhaps the most effective" advocate for federal funds for Baltimore, said Dr. John Bartlett, director of the infectious disease division at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions.

"He never told you what you wanted to hear: He always told you the truth. He had a level of integrity that was extraordinary," he said.

In recent years, Mr. Stuban sat on the mayor's AIDS Advisory Committee and the executive committee of the Greater Baltimore HIV Planning Council, which allocates more than $4 million annually in federal AIDS funds. In 1993, he served as president of the local chapter of the People with AIDS Coalition, and in 1992 he attended the Democratic convention as a delegate, openly declaring that he was HIV-positive. He was also a longtime member of Alcoholics Anonymous.

However, Mr. Stuban's enduring willingness to speak out without apparent fear was among his most important contributions to the community.

"He didn't write newspaper articles or make reports or sit on important steering committees, but he was always out there, always vocal, sometimes irritatingly so. Above all else, he kept his eye on the goal," said Mr. Lambert.

"John was a luxury. With him doing what he did best, we were pretty confident progress would come. Now we have to find a way to do it ourselves," said Jack Garman, manager of the Lambda Rising Bookstore, who was a friend.

As recently as April, Mr. Stuban, already ill, led protesters in chaining themselves to the city Health Department doors to protest job vacancies in AIDS surveillance.

"He was somehow capable of showing us how to abandon our own fears and follow him," said Mark Shaw, a founding member of ACT UP Baltimore. "He had one of the most delicious political minds and a truly God-inspired fearlessness fueled by compassion and moral outrage."

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