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NAMES Project Metro St. Louis Chapter (1987-1994 History)

By John Hilgeman

Posted December 1, 2016/Written October 7, 1997:

Ten years ago, on a crisp Sunday morning, the 11th of October, at the light of dawn, the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt was unfolded on the Washington DC Mall. Two panels with St. Louis connections, were among the nearly two thousand three by six foot multi-colored cloth panels opened to the rising sun, the spirits of those they remembered, released to the air above the Quilt, to move among the pilgrims walking their pathways, until the time came for the Quilt to be folded up at day's end. A poem written by Pat and Mayer Levy, graced the cover of the program that day. Their panel for their son, Michael Jay Levy, displayed this evening in the room next door, and the panel for Richard Neil Eastman, were the first of hundreds of St. Louis panels too soon to follow. Both are pictured in the book: The Quilt, Stories from The NAMES Project.

That Sunday in October was also the day of the second Lesbian and Gay March on Washington. For many of us at the march, that display of the Quilt was our first exposure to the Quilt. Patrick Leonard, my buddy, and I stopped at the Quilt on our way to the March rally. In a radio interview Patrick did with Sandra Spiritas in December 1998, three months before he died, he described his reaction to his first viewing of the Quilt, and elaborated on the energy, the meaning that kept him going as he worked, over the next months, despite the complications of AIDS, on setting up a workshop, organizing a chapter, looking for a site for a display, arranging media interviews, and doing the hundreds of other things that got the workshop, chapter, and display off the ground.

Word had gotten around after the display in DC that the Quilt might be going on display in sites around the country, including St. Louis. A meeting was called for the evening of January 3, 1988, and Jack Caster came to town from the NAMES Project in San Francisco, to tell us about the plans, and encourage us to work on finding a display site, and preparing for the visit of the Quilt. Fifteen of us were there that evening at the Red Cross building, the site of St Louis Effort for AIDS, an organization that would prove to be a great friend of the chapter over the years, paying phone bills, providing volunteers, getting out information, etc. Jack took a photo of all of us there that evening. I don't know where a copy is, and don't have a complete list of all those at the meeting.

I recall some of the most active people in the early days of the chapter being: Mayer and Pat Levy (who co-chaired the display committee and lined up major funding from AT&T), Trish Phifer-Harwig, Vann Johnson, Tony D'Angelo, Patrick Gregory, Tony Hatch, Tim Cusick, Joel Hershey, Tish and Bill LaRock (and their daughter Rachel), Bill's lover Glenn Warnecke, David Long, and a woman named Norvella, and Ron Walker. Patrick Leonard's lover, Dan, worked logistics for the display, Ellen Lowenstein coordinated volunteers, and Roseanne Weiss handled public relations.

A couple days after the January 3 meeting, I talked about the Quilt with a young man in Deaconess Hospital, who was seriously ill with AIDS. He asked to have a panel made for himself before he died. He wanted flowers, and color. A group of us set to work on that panel in Trish's house, our first workshop, and completed it shortly before Robb's death. The intention was for Patrick Leonard to take the panel to Robb to see when Matt Herron, who would be in town from San Francisco to take photos for the book The Quilt, arrived at the end of the week. Robb had agreed to let Matt take pictures of him with the panel. But when, on the way home from work mid-week, I stopped by the hospital to see Robb, I found him in a daze. I called Patrick and said "we have to take the panel to Robb tonight, in case he dies."

When I entered Robb's room, he was more awake, some of the morphine he had been taking having worn off. His buddy and I held the panel up for him to see. He looked at it, felt it, and remarked that it was "gorgeous." Matt arrived on Friday. Pat took him directly to the workshop from the airport, and called the hospital from there, to arrange to bring Matt by. The nurse said that Robb had just died, and his mother was there to intercept the panel so that she could rip it to shreds. Robb's last name was not on the panel, so his mother never knew that it was her son's panel that was held aloft for the local television camera by Matt and Patrick, and that her son's panel would be in one of Matthew's pictures, mounted on the wall in Patrick's apartment.

Roseanne Weiss gave the tip to Pat to check with Dick Deutsch, owner of the Globe-Democrat, for a place to set up a workshop, the first formal Names Project workshop outside San Francisco. We were given a wonderful area on the 7th floor of the Globe-Democrat, a large room with tables, and with windows overlooking the city, a smaller room, a kitchen area, and a big wall on which to hang photos of our work.


Globe-Democrat Work Room

But someone on that floor objected to having people with AIDS using their floor, so Dick gave us a larger area on the first floor, in which to set up tables, sewing machines, hang panels, display photos, write letters, sit and eat and meet and doze. It took weeks for us to line up a place for the display, which was scheduled for the end of April. We checked out the Kiel Center, a hallway in the Globe-Democrat, Vashon High School, Webster University, the Armory, and any other place anyone could think of. At the very last minute, thanks in large part to Charles Koehler, we were able to line up the St. Louis Community College - Forest Park gym. The media gave us great coverage that year, there were numerous TV spots, interviews with KSDK's Deanne Lane, items on other TV channels, articles in the Suburban Journals, and a full page feature article by Ellen Futterman on the Everyday page of the Post-Dispatch, complete with color photos of panels displayed at Nieman-Marcus. We never knew just how beautiful the panels we had been making were, until we saw them in the display windows at Nieman-Marcus.

When the Quilt went on tour that year, the entire Quilt, over 3,000 panels at that point, traveled in a van across the country, stopping at the display sites in preselected cities. The road crew, consisting of Jack Caster, Scott Lago, Gert McMullin, and several other San Francisco people, accompanied the Quilt, helped set it up, and managed it while it was in town.That first display at St. Louis Community College-Forest Park was the largest we have hosted in the area. Over 1,100 panels were displayed.

I quote from my journal of the event. "All who entered the gym were truly enfolded in the Quilt. The energy and the love were electric. It wasn't just the panels, or the love and power in each, or even all together that was so dynamic and moving. The way it was displayed was utterly intense. Once you entered the room, you could not get away from it. It was everywhere. On the floor, on the walls, and on the ceiling. On the two end walls, the panels were hung out from the wall a bit, and they floated in the air. The lights at the top of the walls were behind the Quilt and made the upper panels luminescent with the light coming through."


St. Louis NAMES Display at St. Louis Community College-Forest Park

Since not all the panels in the truck could be displayed in the gym, Evelyn Martinez was kind enough to remove panels from the truck and unfold them on the ground for people to see by request. AIDS was much more of a taboo subject then. The names of at least two persons were covered up on their panels, because of family objections. One couple, after seeing their son's panel on the TV, called, demanding their son's name be covered. Another father had heard someone was making a panel for his son, and called, threatening to come to the workshop with a gun if someone were making the panel. One letter writer for the local Catholic paper decried the nominal sponsorship of the Quilt by the Archdiocesan's Task force on AIDS and accused us of "sewing for sodomy" - a phrase that brought smiles to our faces whenever we found ourselves getting too serious.

When the display was over, we were faced with folding and packing and shipping the panels to San Francisco, to be sewn together for future displays. The question arose as to whether to leave the names, covered at the request of families, covered permanently. We decided to uncover them, so that the persons whom panel makers had commemorated would not be forgotten.

The workshop that we had been using for free, donated by Dick Deutsch, was prime real estate, and a portion had already been partitioned off while we were using it. We had to move to a smaller room, and had to raise the money to pay monthly rent, and as the summer came on, had to be willing to put up with the stifling heat. Some of the members of EFA came forward, generously, to pay the rent. Pat Gregory continued to work on panels through the summer, and for quite a while after that. After his death, when all the panels he made were brought together again for the 1991 display, the full extent of his work, and the number of friends he had lost, became apparent.

In the late summer that year, the workshop was moved to Cherokee Court, in a building owned by Ray Simon and John Hans. They donated the space. Pat Leonard organized an outdoor dinner party fundraiser in the courtyard in early September, to help the Quilt return to DC that October. Tables were set up, volunteers were trained as waiters, and for a donation, people would get a photo of a St. Louis panel they would sponsor to return to DC.

Many panels were made in that workshop on Cherokee Court. Duane Puryear set to work non-stop on a panel for himself that he intended to take to the display in DC to show to friends from TX. The panel read "My name is Duane Kearns Puryear. I was born December 20, 1964, I was diagnosed with AIDS on September 7, 1987 at 4:45PM. I was 22 years old. Sometimes it makes me very sad, I made this panel myself. If you are reading it, I am dead." He lost the panel on the plane on the way home. His mother, using a photo of the panel, made a copy of it for Duane after his death. It has become one of the most requested panels for young students, due to Duane's early age at diagnosis. Quite a few people from St. Louis were at the display on the Ellipse that year, and saw Ronald Reagan fly off into the skies in his helicopter, escaping his responsibility as president.

On December 1, the chapter organized a local celebration at the Ethical Society for the first annual World AIDS Day. The signature panel from April's display was hung, along with some of the panels we had on hand. On March 25, 1989, Patrick Leonard, the founder of our chapter, died.

One of the early themes of the Quilt was "Remember Their Names." That is the heart of the AIDS Memorial Quilt. By making the panels, by displaying the names, we keep the memories of our loved ones alive. I was privileged to work closely with Patrick Leonard in the work we did in the St. Louis chapter. It was his energy, his work, his memory, and my desire to keep his name and memory alive that kept me going for the next few years in doing the work of the Chapter.


Patrick Leonard

My dream was to bring back to St. Louis the panels we had made for Patrick, and for Tony D'Angelo, Vann Johnson, Paul Cullen, John Bischof, Pat Gregory, Matt Cook, all of whom had worked on the Quilt, and those of all the other St. Louisans who were dying around us. In 1989, the Quilt went on tour again, to some cities in the U.S. it had missed the first time around, and into Canada. Kathy Johnson and Bill LaRock, from St. Louis, were two of the members of the road crew. We had a fundraiser for them at Sunshine Inn, and Charles auctioned off a t-shirt autographed by Greg Louganis, who, unbeknownst to us, but known to Greg, was HIV-positive at the time.

We continued to have small displays of panels made locally, panels that we had not yet sent to San Francisco to be made part of the larger Quilt. The workshop moved from Cherokee Court to my bedroom, and I assisted people with panels as needed. The panel for Father Rob Plumley, whose descriptive letter is contained in the book "Letters from the Quilt," was made by a group of his friends and co-workers in that workshop.

Charles and Pat Gregory and a few other people and I had talked about bringing the Quilt back for another major display. The chapter didn't have enough active members to do this. But when Webster University brought the Academy Award winning movie, Common Threads, to campus, took up a collection for the chapter, and passed around lists for people who wanted to volunteer for a display, to sign, we began to accumulate a base of volunteers from which to think of moving forward with our dream.

Then the Washington University AIDS Clinical Trials Program, being held at the Sheraton Hotel, subsequently torn down for the TWA Dome, displayed panels from the balconies, showed a video, and had lists for prospective volunteers to sign. We rapidly gathered momentum. Somewhere along the line, I asked Charles to be co-coordinator. I don't know if he has ever forgiven me.

Deb Law donated a large space in Interiors in Green for a workshop, and served as our fundraising volunteer. Pat Hannan was our first volunteer coordinator that year, succeeded, when she moved to Maine, by Ken Konchell and Bea Pasternak. Vicki Knoll was our media coordinator, Pat Gregory panel making coordinator, Dennis Rau ceremonies coordinator, Dan Johnson was again our logistics coordinator, Ken Pilot did a huge educational outreach to the schools as coordinator for that aspect of the display, Marcia Newton arranged, as outreach coordinator, for Quincy Troupe to send a letter to the African American Churches in the region. And Renee Bauer did outreach in Illinois.

Charles and I spent many an hour on the phone discussing the intricate details of bringing the Quilt back to St. Louis, again at St, Louis Community College-Forest Park. Charles came up with the idea of asking Mary Engelbreit to do our poster, and followed up with what has proved to be one of the most popular designs for NAMES Project merchandise. Mark Johnson did lots of printing, including the posters. Bill Witbrodt ran our finances. And lots of other people did the enormous amount of work it took to bring the Quilt back to St. Louis, and took care of the innumerable details of the setup and display itself.

During all this time, from February into September of 1991, Pat Gregory, got progressively worse, and some of us ended up spending our days working at our jobs, our evenings working on the Quilt, and some of our nights keeping Pat company in the hospital in shifts, until he died, almost on the eve of the display. He never lived to see the largest collection of his body of creative work, the many panels he had so lovingly made for his friends.

The second display, to those of us who had seen the first, was not as overwhelming. The QDC had decided not to hang panels from the poles in the ceiling. There were fewer panels in the balconies, due to new lights. The media coverage was not as extensive, try as we might. But the display, and the smaller displays preceding it, brought the message of the Quilt to many thousands of people throughout the bi-state region. Ozzie Smith and Mayor Vince Schoemehl videotaped public service announcements for us. Vince did his at the workshop, strategically placed in front of the panel for Matt Cook, in such a way, that the pink triangle on the panel was clearly visible on the evening news, when the news story was aired that evening. He also came to the display, unexpectedly, and read names. Ozzie Smith and Jeanne White wrote letters encouraging people to visit the Quilt. Mayors signed proclamations.

After this display closed, we continued making panels, providing panel making information, hosting small displays, doing fundraisers, and all the work that goes along with being a chapter. There was a bit of a lull in enthusiasm and involvement of volunteers, but when the 1992 DC display was announced, we began gearing up, had volunteer trainings at Interiors in Green, and traveled to DC.

Once again we moved our workshop, when the space we were occupying was needed for Interiors in Green. This time we moved to the basement of an apartment building Charles owned. After many years of involvement with the chapter, I resigned as co-chair, leaving the chapter in good hands with Charles in charge. I will turn things over to Charles forthwith, to talk about the history of the chapter from 1994 on, but I want to say, before I do, that it has been under his leadership that a strong, healthy, stable core of leaders has developed, enabling Charles to step aside, leaving the work of the chapter in the hands of many very capable people. One final word. I have touched on only a small part of the history of our chapter, and would be grateful for any additional history that people might want to add from their storehouse of memories.

Ours is a chapter whose many members and volunteers have accomplished a considerable amount of work in the last 10 years, work that has helped people grieve their losses, has helped memorialize the lives of loved ones lost, has sensitized people to the human lives behind the panels, has raised needed funds for AIDS service agencies, and has educated many thousands of school children about AIDS and its consequences. We have a lot to be proud of, and our current health as a chapter gives us the assurance that, working together, we can accomplish much in the future.

Images courtesty of John Hilgeman

Copyright Steven Louis Brawley, 2007-Present. All Rights Reserved.