An idealist and great friend, who died of AIDS in 1986
This LifePost honors a young man who died of AIDS in 1986 but left a deep mark on his friends, peers and others in the Columbia University community.
In the course of raising money for a scholarship fund in his name, there were several articles and testimonials that start to give a brief picture of this remarkable fellow. Some excerpts:
THE NEW YORK TIMES, February 2, 1987:
Columbia U. Fund Honors a Victim of AIDS
A drive to create a Columbia College scholarship in honor of Stuart Garcia, a leading member of the class of 1984 who died AIDS last year, has won the endorsement of the Columbia University Senate.
In a resolution about Mr. Garcia passed without dissent Friday afternoon, the Senate said, “For the contributions he made to Columbia and For the courage he showed in battling a disease afflicting so many young people, he should be remembered by future generations of Columbians.”
Mr. Garcia, of Austin, Tex, had served for two years in the Senate, a 102-member body composed of students, faculty, staff, administrators and alumni. He was president of his freshman and sophomore classes and a member of the Sachems, a senior honor society. He died of acquired immune deficiency syndrome on July 18 at the age of 23.
The Stuart Garcia Memorial Fund was established shortly after his death with the goal of raising at least $25,000, enough for a self-sustaining endowment and the creation of a scholarship. It would be awarded to a student in financial need, mostly likely one who had performed some kind of service to the community or school. According to its sponsors, more than $6,000 has already been raised.
“We felt it was very important that it be clear that there is no shame in dying from AIDS,” said one of the sponsors, Steven Waldman, who was a classmate of Mr. Garcia. “The university, by putting its impramture on the und, has helped make that statement in a very powerful and important way.”
Another sponsor, Julius Genachowski, who was in the class of 1985, said that “an incredibly high percentage of recent graduates, 23- and 24-year-olds in their first job or struggling through graduate school, when contacted about the scholarship, promised immediately to give what they could, which usually turned out to be $20 or so.”
REFLECTIONS BY HIS SISTER
(This is is by Stuart's sister, Kay McAnnally. It is also cross-posted LifeTimeline)
Lots of people think their brother was special and my brother Stuart certainly was. But it was more than that. There was an air of spiritual magic about him. Magic in his coming, magic in his being, magic in his going.
I was 16 and a junior in high school when he was born. Because he came to my mother later in life some people speculated that he might have been my son rather than my brother. I would have been proud to be his mother and there’s no doubt that our relationship was more like that of a mother and son than a brother and sister because of our age difference. He was the most extraordinary person I have ever known and our very special relationship was sparked the first time I held him in my arms.
When Stuart came home from hospital I was allowed to carry him into our home. He was so alert I decided to take him on a home tour. As I walked from room to room pointing out the features, what started as a ripple of emotional insight became a tidal wave that swept over me, determined the course of my life and the connection forged between a fairly typical teenager and an awesome infant.
As we walked through the house I realized with growing intensity that this little baby was very special and that I must protect him. From another place came an equally powerful and sudden gut-wrenching sense of loss. I understood simultaneously that he was here for a purpose, that he was a child with a mission but that he would not be with me for long. Once the mission was completed he would be gone – back to whatever star he came from.
I was angry. I told God with all the power I could muster that He could not have him. He was in my care and I would fight to protect him with every fiber of my being. I was dedicated to his survival and that commitment set my life on a course that lasted through all our time together.
Stuart accompanied me just about any place I could take him. We went shopping, errand running and he even came on dates with me and my boyfriends until I left for college. I remember telling one of my friends, when Stuart was three years old, that I thought he might be a little “different”. He wasn’t effeminate but he wasn’t at all like other male children. Instead of joining the other boys in his kindergarten class in toppling classmates’ castles made of blocks, he comforted the children whose works of art were knocked down by the other boys. He preferred music, art and reading to sports and shoot-outs. His kindness, good looks and creativity allowed him to make friends easily.
At three years of age Stuart was able to read the morning newspaper to my father at the breakfast table. When he stumbled over big words the little boy figured out their sounds phonetically until he could say them. Sometimes my father would assist him with correct inflexions and explain the meanings of the words. Intellectually, Stuart was gifted. Emotionally, though, he was still a little boy. Conversations with Stuart were conducted on an adult level so it was hard to remember that he was just a baby and we often expected too much from him.
Our mother, a pre-school teacher, saw that her son needed intellectual challenges to keep him interested in his studies. There was no program in Austin, Texas, for children like Stuart. He had been lucky that he had been able to attend excellent schools until 6th grade and that his teachers, who delighted in seeing their student excel, gave him special attention. But when Stuart got to seventh grade “bussing” children to schools out of their neighborhoods had started in Austin as an attempt to integrate the public schools. Stuart’s new school was one of the roughest in Austin. When he got to Baker Jr. High he was unprepared for the culture he found there.
Seeing a new kid in the school hallway, one of the gangs wasted no time in mugging him, roughing him up, taking his watch and lunch money. My parents wanted to remove him immediately. But Stuart refused to go. Quitting wasn’t on his radar and he wanted to learn form the kids at Baker. Typical of Stuart, he developed a win-win strategy to cope with the problem.
My brother was a smallish eleven year old. He realized the leader of the tough guys was a large 15 year old who was being held back because he had failed several grades and could not read and write. A deal was made which later grew into a friendship. Stuart would teach him to read and write and in turn would be protected. Stuart made sure the young man passed 8th grade and in turn got some worry-free street cred. The young man learned to respect brainpower.
Seeing such a need for challenging schools for gifted kids, our mother went to work to create gifted school program and together with another teacher introduced the program to the Austin schools. The next year Stuart attended St. Stephens School – a private school where my mother became a board member. Best of all, his life long best friend, Mark Bowman attended school there, too and the two matured into fine young leaders.
When Stuart was 12, I came home from college one time to find my mother sitting alone in the kitchen crying. My mother was a strong woman – she never cried. She dried her tears when she saw me and pretended nothing was wrong, but her red eyes betrayed her. She was miserable. She said she felt she had nothing left to offer her son – he had outgrown her. He was smarter than she. We talked for a while before she accepted that all twelve year-old children need mothering – no matter how smart they may be.
My parents had a rocky marriage and a year later it was really starting to unravel.
My sister and I had homes of our own by then. The tension in the family home was awful, and Stuart was being pulled apart by our parents’ broken spirits. They both loved him very much and he took advantage of their devotion to him and convinced them that he should go to Spain for a year or two to study Spanish. He left home as an exchange student and stayed with the Cunill family in Barcelona for two years.
When my parents told me they had given Stuart permission to study in Spain I felt sick. There was no way I could protect him while he was so far away from home. To survive worrying about him in his absence some things had to change for me. I convinced myself that my feelings of fear for Stuart were unfounded. I apologized to God for thinking that I had to protect my brother from Him; he was a loving God, after all, who only wanted the best for all his children. He would care for my brother and keep him safer than I ever could. Consciously, I handed him back to God for safekeeping.
Stuart loved the Cunill’s and he became their 8th child – an adopted but well loved family member. While he was living with them the family often made trips to ski in Andorra and to visit with their friend who was the president of that small country. The politician’s wife found Stuart to be a promising young man and taught him to ski and to speak Catalan fluently. Stuart was sorry to leave his adopted family and the country he had learned to love so much. By the time he came home my parents were divorced. Stuart lived with our Mom and went back to High School. By then finances had taken a turn for the worst as a result of the divorce and Stuart would need to find a scholarship to attend University. Fortunately, he had no problem finding several.
Stuart was offered places at top State and Ivy League universities. He chose Columbia in New York where he majored in Journalism and met kindred spirits and talented friends – people who would contribute much to Stuart’s life and to the world. My young brother became a community leader in New York, an activist and a graduate of Columbia University where he had been president of his class and served in the University Senate. He spoke five languages fluently and, while he was a student, worked as a language interpreter at Columbia for visiting dignitaries. As young journalists, he and his friend Mark traveled to the Far East to gather information and report what they found. Often what they reported was not same story we read in the American Press.
Stuart was focused on service to humanity and dedicated to equality for all. He traveled to Nicaragua to help with that nation’s first democratic vote and to work with the Catholic Church and the Maryknoll Sisters to monitor the election polling stations and tally results. He led student protests against Apartheid, served in soup kitchens, cared for the needy. Stuart gave a whole lifetime of service to people everywhere in his short twenty-three years on earth. In short, he was an amazing human being.
Since he was a little boy, Stuart and I had a Christmas Eve tradition. After filling his Christmas stocking I would crawl in bed with him and we would talk deep into the night until we both fell asleep. The next morning we would go into the living room to see what Santa had brought. The Christmas when Stuart was twenty was when he told me he was Gay. I was not surprised and his sexual preference made no difference to me but I was concerned that his life would be tougher as a Gay man than a “straight” one – and I told him how I felt. Half laughingly I asked him if he could please change his mind. He didn’t see the humor and said, “Kay, do you think anyone in his right mind would CHOOSE to be gay? Of course I can’t change my mind and I know a Gay life is tougher – but this is not a choice. It’s who I am! Stuart contracted AIDS a year later, one of the first in New York to have the deadly disease.
As my brother lay dying in his hospital bed, my mother, my sister, and Stuart’s friend Father Bernard Lynch and I gathered around him. Stuart was in a coma but we wouldn’t leave him. After several nights vigil we were exhausted and all fell asleep at our various posts stationed around his room. I was sitting in a chair at Stuart’s bedside with my hand on his arm and head resting on his bed, next to his chest. Suddenly, I snapped awake. Something was different – I could feel it physically. My first thought was to check my brother’ breathing. I opened my eyes.
Surrounding Stuart’s body, like someone had drawn an outline around it with a pen, was a tiny line of shimmering electric gold. Slowly, it started to grow and became more intense. When it was about an inch high around his body I woke up the others and asked if they could see it. But they could not.
The electric gold line shimmered and expanded until, at about three inches high, it evolved into small golden arches. The arches expanded until they reached about eight to ten inches above their golden base and then dissolved into hues of lavender, then bright purple, then dark purple. As the lights were dancing around him, I described the phenomenon to the others in the room who were looking where I was pointing but they couldn’t see what was happening. I knew instinctively I was watching Stuart’s spirit leave his body. The shimmering colors started to dissipate into lighted dust particles at about two feet above my brother’s bed and at 3 feet the tiny lights had completely disappeared. The whole phenomenon lasted about two or three minutes. His body died nearly two days after his spirit had left it.
For the first few years after Stuart’s death I thought about his ascension almost everyday. Some days I doubted what I saw and told myself I had made up the event to sooth my grieving mind. Then one day, while accompanying my husband to a television production meeting in Edinburgh, I joined him to meet an associate, Chris George.
Before he was television set designer, Chris had served as a Monk in Tibet for several years learning Transcendental Meditation. He left the monastery to teach TM to people everywhere as part of his spiritual mission. Chris was late for our breakfast meeting but made no apologies. He was smiling – he looked “at peace” as he sat down at our table. He explained that he was delayed because he had witnessed an amazing event that he had heard about from his Buddhist brothers but had never seen for himself.
A dog had been run over on the road outside his hotel and he had rushed to give the poor creature comfort as it died. As he cradled the dog’s head in his hands a yellow glow surrounded the body of the dog, which then turned into golden arches and eventually changed into purple and then dissipated into the air. He explained that he had witnessed the dog’s spirit leave its body.
Although I thanked the Lord for allowing me to witness my brother’s spirit leaving his body, my anger towards God was huge. I had retired from my post as Stuart’s protector, in good faith, and God took him while I thought Stuart was in His care. No matter how often I have tried to rationalize Stuart’s death, the struggle to forgive God for taking him has never gone away.
It is hard for me to see anything positive in Stuart’s early death. I think of all the lives he touched in the short time he was with us and wonder how much more he could have done to improve the world if had he been allowed to stay. They say that time heals but in my case it has not. The wound caused by Stuart being ripped away from me is as open now as it was all those years ago.
The only thing even remotely positive is this. Stuart’s death brought my husband Conor into my life. He made a documentary about Fr. Bernard Lynch and, in it told part of Stuart’s story. We met on the first anniversary of Stuart’s passing and now, 28 years later, I often think bringing Conor and me together was Stuart’s way of taking care of me.
There are very few days I do not think of him and on the days I miss him most is when a dove visits my backyard and know that the peaceful, vibrant soul of my brother, is missing me too.
ONE OF HIS FAVORITE THOMAS MERTON POEMS
Stuart's sister sent a copy of a note that he had sent her, along with one a poem by Thomas Merton that had apparently given him some strength:
THE FUNDRAISING LETTER SENT BY HIS CLASSMATES
Here is the text of a fundraising letter, drafted by Steven Waldman, that went out to Columbia College alumni and others in raising money for the Stuart Garcia Scholarship:
Stuart Garcia, a member of the Class of 1984 and a University Senator for two years, died on July 18 from AIDS at age 23.
Stuart had been active in student government during all four years at Columbia, first as Class of 1984 freshman class preisdent, then as sophomore class president, and then for two years as the College representative to the University Senate.
Those at Columbia who didn't know Stuart at all may have assumed he was another student government type looking for a line to add to his resume. But as anyone who had the good fortune to know him discovered, his work on issues such as financial aid, divestment and the conditions of the community's homeless was driven -- powerfully so -- by heartfelt concern.
After graduation he had travelled to Central America with Witness for Peace, a church group dedicated to ending hostilities in the region. He then moved to Washington where he was helping to set up a political action committee focusing on human rights. He was diagnosed as having AIDS in March, 1985.
His family and friends think it important for several reasons that people know how Stuart died. First, as fear and hysteria continue to color how many view AIDS patients, it is important that we be reminded of the genuinely good souls it takes. There is no shame in dying of AIDS.
In addition, media coverage usually focuses on either the cruel mathematics of AIDS or, occasionally, on the pasts of the victims. By necessity, it never assesses the potential of their futures, which is usually difficult gauge. With Stuart, however, it is certain that the future that was denied was one of helping and serving others.
Finally, Stuart’s death was a lesson in valor. AIDS is a psychologically ruthless disease. Instead of killing with one swift blow, it wages limited battles, each weakening not only the body but the determination to fight the next episode. As his body weakened, Stuart’s determination did not. We hope that for his contribution to Columbia and for his courage in fighting off a disease killing so many young lives, Stuart will be remembered by future generations at Columbia in much the same way we think of those who gave their lives in war.
We used to go out to a local luncheonette and talk about food. Food had become very important to him. It was crucial that he keep his weight up. I had been struggling to keep my weight up for extremely different reasons. Although my motive was vanity and his was survival, he still relished helping me with my task. As we slurped milkshake after milkshake he spoke hopefully about how he was going to beat the disease. And when he would get sick and then recover he felt joy not just because he passed through one illness on the way to another but because it was evidence that he was going to prevail.
The last time I saw Stuart was at the hospital in Austin, Texas. He looked very thin. His gauntness made his eyes seem bigger and sadder. His condition was fairly advanced and things must have been seeming hopeless. But I remember rwalking around with him at the physical therapy center of the hospital when every step in the corridor was like climbing a mountain. The expression on his face when he was struggling on the stationery bicycle was an incredible mixture of pain and determination. And he did win that battle, even though the doctors thought he wouldn’t. He recovered enough so he could check out of the hospital.
How difficult that last year must have been. I suppose there was a certain amount of denial involved in his persistence in fighting the disease. But mostly it was courage.
FIGHTING FOR NEED-BLIND ADMISSIONS
I always loved this picture of Stuart and his fellow Columbia College Senator, James Weinstein, which ran in the Columbia Spectator. Jimmy was a conservative Republican and Stuart was a liberay Democrat, but they teamed up to fight for "need blind" admissions, the concept that the university should make their admissions decisions without knowledge of the applicant's financial status. The policy was in danger of being dropped and Stuart led the effort to keep it.
THE UNIVERSITY SENATE RESOLUTION
December 19 1986
RESOLUTION CONCERNING SCHOLARSHIP FUND TO HONOR STUART GARCIA
WHEREAS, Stuart Garcia, a 1984 graduate of Columbia College and a distinguished member of the University Senate, in which he served on the Executive Committee, the Committee on Student Affairs, Commission on Aid Policy from 1982-84, died on July 18, 1986, and,
WHEREAS, during his years at Columbia, he was strongly committed to serving others, a value that Columbia strives to promote and instill in its students, by fighting hard to ensure that Columbia remains open to students of all economic levels, aiding the area’s hungry and homeless, and leading efforts to formulate a just University investmebt policy, and,
WHEREAS, Stuart Garcia, died of AIDS, and,
WHEREAS, he exhibited tremendous courage in the last year of his life, maintaining a determined dignity, despite physical deterioration and daunting odds against survival, and
WHEREAS, the University Senate believes that, for the contributions he made to Columbia and for the courage he showed in battling a disease afflicting so many young people, he should be remembered by future generations of Columbians, and,
WHERASE, his friends, family and Columbia college have established a scholarship fund in his name,
THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, that the University Senate proudly endorses these efforts to memorialize Stuart Garcia.
THE COLUMBIA SPECTATOR COVERAGE
An article first published by SW on Beliefnet)
The thing I remember most about Stuart is his table, and until recently, this was a source of great shame for me.
When my friend Stuart Garcia died in 1986 of AIDS, at age 23, I promised myself that I would try to remember him--for what could be sadder than someone who is forgotten because he hadn't had time to do something memorable?
It seemed especially cruel because Stuart was one of those people who seemed destined to do something important. I met him in college when he was the president of the student body and I was the editor of the school newspaper. He had that rare combination of talent, earnestness, and ambition that makes for great men and women.
He was diagnosed with HIV in 1985, many years before the invention of life-preserving drug cocktails. Stuart and I both lived in Washington, D.C. As he grew sicker, I sat with him during physical therapy, watching his unbearable optimism. I promised myself I would hold on to his compassion, his brilliance, his potential--unaware at the time that it's impossible to remember potential.
There was nothing miraculous about his last year. It most certainly did not illustrate the healing power of prayer or positive thinking. He tried to visualize the AIDS virus as dark light that could be pushed out through his pores by white healing energy. It didn't work.
He did not live "far longer than anyone expected." Indeed, he died faster than anyone predicted.
And after he died, his other friends and I pledged to do whatever we could to keep his memory alive. We created a scholarship fund at college in his name; we promised to keep in touch, in tribute to him. But as time passed, I've stopped responding to the notes from the school about the Stuart Garcia Fund. There are no reunions of Stuart's friends, and I really couldn't tell you where most of them are.
The one thing about Stuart that persists in my life is his table. It's a modern drop-leaf table of blond pine, with legs that fold so that it can be either a half-table, a full table, or, with both leaves down, a thin one-foot-wide expanse. It's undistinguished, saying less "family heirloom" than "Ikea special." But Stuart's mom, when she was cleaning out his apartment, needed to get rid of some of his things and asked if I wanted it, and I said yes, not out of sentimentality but because I needed a table.
After I got married, we put it in the sunroom, where we ate breakfast. Sometimes, we'd dress it up with a tablecloth and a vase full of flowers. It seemed elegant enough. "When the guests come," I'd say, "we can have brunch at Stuart's table."
When my son was born, the mohel--an old man with an accent, dark fedora, and mysterious black bag--came to our house for the bris. We needed a spot with plenty of light, so we opened up both leaves of the table in the sunroom. The mohel set his bag, surgical utensils, and prayer book on Stuart's table. He lay down our new life on this table, performed the ancient circumcision ritual, and quickly dabbed my son's lips with wine to stop him from crying.
As they grew, my sons Joe and Gordon would set up their dollhouse on Stuart's table, this time with the two main leaves folded down. Miniature wooden tables, tiny aluminum foil bowls and candelabras, hungry plastic dinosaurs--they all sat together atop Stuart's table.
My wife, Amy, never met Stuart, so all she knows of him is the table. Only recently did we become conscious of the fact that 14 years after his death, we still call it "Stuart's table."
At first I thought, how pathetic that this is what has endured. What became of my plans for memory books and meaningful scholarships and reunions?
Now I feel very blessed to have that table. No, Stuart didn't really get a chance to make his mark, and his potential will never be carved into a monument.
But when I see the table, and when I speak of it, a fleeting vision of that sweet young man--that gentle do-gooder--reappears in my mind. In some faiths and cultures, people believe that human spirits inhabit trees or objects. It's hard for me to look at it quite that way, but clearly a table can work as a co-conspirator--with the mind and the spirit--to call forth memories of a wonderful soul. So, thank you, Mrs. Garcia, for allowing me to take Stuart's table.
ROBERT AND AMY POLLACK'S CONTRIBUTIONS
Robert Pollack, who was the Dean of Columbia College, was instrumental in helping push along the scholarship, including nudging the university as a whole to help. And his wife, Amy, an artist, did this lovely illustration:
THE STUART GARCIA SCHOLARS
The students who received the Stuart Garcia scholarship over the years have included:
We will add the names of Stuart Garcia scholars each year as they're announced.
I remember I was renting a room from the author Taylor Branch when I heard from Steve Waldman that Stuart had contracted AIDS. He was the first person I knew personally who had the disease which has still seemed out there. The grace with which he dealt with a disease that meant certain death (thankfully, no more) and the lovely service which followed his passing were fitting capstones to a wonderful life. I only wish his time here had been longer and I had known him better.
Stuart became first a source for me when I was a reporter at the Columbia Spectator, and then a friend. There are days I'll never forget: the day he came out to me; the day he told me he had AIDS; visiting him with Steve at his childhood Austin home when he was very ill; and the day I learned he died. In between there were days and nights of endless discussion about Columbia and its policies; about how to make the world a better place, fun meals, and lots of laughter. I miss Stuart every day.
Glad to have done a small thing to help keep Stuart's memory alive - and help others like Stuart - by starting with Steve the Stuart Garcia Memorial Scholarship Fund. Every year I get a note from Columbia with the name of the new award recipient. I think of Stuart, and I smile.