People Staff
March 15, 1999 12:00 PM

Magic Johnson

By going public with his HIV infection, he alerted Americans to the dangers of unprotected sex

Even during the biggest crisis of his life, the old magic didn’t fail him. If the luminous smile had dimmed by a few watts, basketball giant Earvin Johnson Jr. still faced the Nov. 7, 1991, press conference with his usual aplomb, announcing to a stunned crew of reporters, “Because of the HIV virus that I have attained, I will have to retire from the Lakers today.”

Once diagnosed, the affable point guard never considered concealing the truth. “I have never run away from anything, and I wasn’t about to do that here,” recalls Johnson, 39, who as a student in Lansing, Mich., had helped integrate a white high school.

Johnson believes his affliction is part of a bigger design. “This is my calling,” he says. “I think God put me in a new life where I could touch people’s lives in ways I never could playing ball.” He was heard. “The fact that an American hero acknowledged his vulnerability became a message to the American people that HIV is not solely a disease of drug users or gay men. It is a matter of behavior,” says Dr. Alexandra M. Levine of the University of Southern California School of Medicine.

By staying active and looking healthy, Johnson is also proving that there’s life after an HIV diagnosis. According to Dr. Martin Markowitz, clinical director of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center in New York City, an “inspirational” Johnson represents the new “face of HIV infection”—people who are able to fend off an active case of AIDS thanks to breakthrough drug therapy that combines AZT, protease inhibitors and reverse transcriptase inhibitors.

The 6’9″ Johnson, who works out daily and follows a low-fat diet, also has a secret weapon for staying healthy: his wife, Cookie, 40. He broke the news to her in the TV room of their Beverly Hills mansion just six weeks after they were married, and four days after her pregnancy with Earvin III was confirmed. When Johnson told her he would understand if she left, she slapped him. “It was like, ‘Are you crazy? I would never do that!’ ” says Cookie.

“If Cookie hadn’t said that, I’d probably be dead by now,” says Johnson, who credits his wife for keeping his stress levels down. He and Cookie, who tested negative for the virus, later adopted Elisa, now 4, to join son Earvin III, 6. (Johnson’s 18-year-old son Andre lives with his mother in Lansing but plans to attend college in Southern California next fall.)

Since the announcement, Johnson has had his career ups and downs. After returning to basketball—he won an Olympic gold medal in ’92 as part of the Dream Team in Barcelona and rejoined the Lakers for part of the ’96 season—he finally retired at age 36. His 1998 late-night talk show The Magic Hour was canceled after eight weeks.

Fortunately, Johnson had established a business empire. With a net worth estimated at more than $100 million, he has opened movie theaters in minority neighborhoods and has a 5 percent ownership in the Lakers. His Magic Johnson Foundation has raised over $15 million. “I’m a big dreamer,” he says. “I didn’t want to be like every other athlete. I wanted to be different.” He got his wish.

Nancy Stedman

Kelly Carter in Los Angeles

James Brady

Felled by a bullet intended for Ronald Reagan, he inspired the first federal handgun-control law

When presidential press secretary James Brady walked into his White House office on his first day of work, Jan. 20, 1981, he found a bulletproof vest and a note left by his predecessor Jody Powell: “Dear Jim, It’s not the bullets that get you in this job, it’s the ants and the gnats.” Powell, sadly, was wrong. That March 30, outside the Washington Hilton Hotel & Towers, Brady, then 40, was struck in the head by a bullet aimed at President Ronald Reagan, who was hit in the chest. Despite nine months in the hospital and two operations to remove fluid from the brain, the burly pol nicknamed Bear remains partly paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair. He experiences “pain sometimes so intense I cry,” he told a House committee in 1990. Though he has difficulty speaking, he is a big draw at political events and is devoted to generating support for gun control. In 1993, President Clinton signed the so-called Brady Law which now requires instant computerized background checks on buyers. According to the Justice Department, it has so far prevented almost 225,000 people from purchasing handguns. Last fall, Brady, who lives with wife Sarah, 57, in Dewey Beach, Del, worked on the campaigns of 30 like-minded candidates. “We keep doing,” says Sarah. “That is our way to get over things.” Because of their dedication, says their friend California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, “this country is a safer place.”

Shannon Faulkner

The Citadel’s first female student paved the way for a new crop of officers, gentlemen and women

For most freshmen at The Citadel, Hell Week, a time of tough training and brutal hazing, lasted nine days. For Shannon Faulkner, now 24, the first woman to attend the South Carolina military college, hell went on far longer. As a high school senior, the Powderville, S.C., daughter of a-teacher and a fencing company owner set her sights on the military college because, she says, “the alumni networking of The Citadel is renowned.” She challenged the school’s men-only policy and, on Jan. 20, 1994, entered as a day student under court order. Her classmates, however, “basically hated everything about me,” she says. “I got hate mail, death threats.” It got worse in August 1995, when Faulkner, watched over by federal marshals, moved on campus. Some cadets donned T-shirts that read, “1,952 Bulldogs and 1 Bitch.” Getting nauseous during training, Faulkner landed in the infirmary. After six days she waved the white flag. But when an administrator offered to sneak her out, she says, “I said, ‘No, sir. I’ll go out the front door, the way I came in.’ I faced the horrible crowd.”

After Faulkner, The Citadel changed. Hell Week is gone. A new code of conduct is in place. And today the freshman class of 479 includes 28 women. Though the women following Faulkner had troubles of their own (Shannon says that she has never spoken to Jeanie Mentavlos or Kim Messer, who, in 1996, also left under a barrage of harassment), the first female “made it easier for whoever came next,” says Malissa Burnette, a Columbia, S.C., civil rights lawyer. As the bitter memories fade, Faulkner, who expects to graduate from Anderson College near Greenville, S.C., this May, prepares for a future as an English teacher and hopes to have a family. “If I hadn’t been stubborn enough to stand up to the morons and bullies, who would I be?” she says. “I can’t imagine.”

Candy Lightner

A grieving mother helped America get MADD

On May 5, 1980, on her way to a church carnival in Fair Oaks, Calif., 13-year-old Cari Lightner was killed by a drunk driver. When Cari’s mother, Candy, now 52, learned that her daughter’s killer had been accused of three other drunk-driving incidents, “the rage was unbelievable,” she says. Lightner quit her job as a real estate agent and formed Mothers Against Drunk Driving, a nationwide network of activists who successfully lobbied federal legislators to change the drinking age from 18 to 21. “What Candy did was put a human face on the victim,” says Karolyn V. Nunnallee, MADD’s national president. Lightner left the group in 1985 and was later criticized for lobbying on behalf of the American Beverage Institute to keep the legal blood-alcohol level at .10, a standard challenged by MADD as too lenient. Now an organizational consultant in Alexandria, Va., Lightner says, “I don’t want to deal with victims’ issues anymore. It’s sad and depressing.”

Jennifer Harbury

A widow risked starvation to discover her husband’s fate

By October 1994, Jennifer Harbury was at the end of her rope. No U.S. or Guatemalan official was willing to tell the Harvard-educated lawyer anything about the fate of her husband, Guatemalan guerrilla commander Efrain Bamaca Velasquez, 35, who had disappeared 2½ years earlier. She went on a hunger strike in the hope of bringing attention to Bamaca’s plight. “People ask how I could stop eating for 32 days,” says Harbury, 47. “It was a piece of cake compared to sitting in my house, wondering what was happening to him.” In 1995, after three hunger strikes, Harbury learned from a member of the House Intelligence Committee that Bamaca—who went under the nom de guerre Everardo—had been murdered. The order had come from Col. Julio Alpirez, a Guatemalan military official who was a CIA informant. Harbury, who has not remarried and now works for the human rights organization Global Exchange in San Francisco, has filed a wrongful-death suit against the U.S. government. “I’m calling for what’s within the law,” she says. “All of us have a right to know what our government is doing.” Beth Stephens, an attorney with New York City’s Center for Constitutional Rights, says that if Harbury wins her case, “it would be a step toward ending this-kind of torture around the world.”

Anita Hill

Her testimony touched a raw nerve and raised tough questions about sexual harassment

In 1991, Anita Hill went to Washington, D.C., to testify about sexual comments allegedly made by her former boss, then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Hill lost the battle—Thomas won Senate confirmation and now sits comfortably on the high court’s bench. But her testimony provided a nationwide consciousness-raising session. “It put sexual harassment on the map,” says National Organization for Women president Patricia Ireland. An estimated 30 million households watched at least some of the 35 hours of televised hearings. Within a year corporations across the country stepped up efforts to educate employees about sexual harassment, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission logged a record 9,920 complaints (50 percent more than the previous year). The hearings also changed the life of the intensely private law professor.

“People think they know me from that one experience,” says Hill, 42. “That can be both good and bad.” During the media frenzy of the hearings she received some 40,000 letters—mostly from supporters. She also survived attacks on her integrity, including one from right-wing journalist David Brock, whose bestseller The Real Anita Hill portrayed her as a liberal pawn in an anti-Thomas conspiracy. Friend Karolyne Murdock, a Norman, Okla., banking executive, says she admires Hill “for handling the onslaught with such dignity. She’s made something positive out of it.”

In 1995, Hill used her visibility to set up a college-scholarship fund for survivors of the Oklahoma City bombing, to which she contributed some of the profits from her 1997 memoir Speaking Truth to Power. Although supporters had raised $250,000 to endow a chair in her name at the University of Oklahoma law school, where Hill taught for 10 years, the school—responding to anti-Hill protests—failed to fill the position, and in 1996, Hill resigned her tenured position there. Never married, Hill bought a new home in Norman and is working on a book about sexual harassment. Not surprisingly, she has weighed in (on The New York Times op-ed page, among other places) on the Monica Lewinsky affair. Although she says she finds Clinton’s behavior “troublesome,” she believes that blaming him for everything misses some important aspects of the situation. “If you carry this thinking to an extreme,” says Hill, “no woman can ever have a relationship with a man who is her superior. I’m not willing to always accept that women are the victim.”

Julia Quinlan

In the name of daughter Karen Ann, she fought for the right to die with dignity

I saw Karen shriveling up. I knew she couldn’t hear me, she didn’t speak,” says Julia Quinlan. Doctors told her that her daughter Karen Ann, then 21, would never recover from the coma she had slipped into in the spring of 1975 after apparently ingesting a toxic combination of tranquilizers and alcohol. With the support of their parish priest, Julia and her husband, Joseph (who died in 1996), made a historic decision that attracted international attention: They went to court seeking permission for Karen to be taken off a life-sustaining respirator. Though the New Jersey Supreme Court granted their plea, Karen survived until 1985. Julia now lives in northwestern New Jersey near daughter Mary Ellen and son John. She founded a hospice program in Karen’s name in 1980 and lectures on the rights of the terminally ill. “She feels a deep responsibility to other families in her situation,” says Paul Armstrong, the Quinlans’ attorney. “Julia is a pioneer.”

Wang Dan

Only 20 and a college freshman, he defied the Chinese government and made sure the world could not look away

When the image of Wang Dan shouting, “We will never give up!” into a bullhorn in the center of Tiananmen Square on May 7, 1989, was telecast around the world, the Beijing University freshman was catapulted to international fame. Later he was convicted of conspiring to overthrow the government.

Though he escaped the bloody massacre, the young leader of the Chinese prodemocracy movement served nearly four years in prison and was jailed again 26 months later for signing a human rights petition. “Our interest in democracy was based on concerns like freedom of speech,” says Wang, now 30, who was paroled last April and sent to the U.S. “Now I believe democracy is something inner.” While he continues to petition China for the release of political prisoners, studying modern history at Harvard gives shape to his days. “If you didn’t let me study, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself,” he says.

Charlotte Fedders

She brought wife-beating among the upper crust out of the closet

Fourteen years ago, Charlotte Fedders went public with a shocking secret. The woman who seemed to have it all—marriage to the chief of enforcement at the Securities and Exchange Commission; five sons; a beautiful Potomac, Md., home; membership in the exclusive Congressional Country Club—was being physically abused by her husband. Over the years, the 6’10” John Fedders, a former Marquette University basketball center who was highly regarded as a vigorous prosecutor of fraud and insider trading, terrorized Charlotte. He punched her in the abdomen in 1968 while she was pregnant with their first son, Luke; gave her a black eye when she allowed the boys to stop shoveling snow; instituted militarylike house rules—no shoes on the carpets, no laughing at mealtime—which, if broken, sometimes resulted in punishment and humiliation. “I remember he had this fraternity paddle,” says Matthew Fedders, now 24 and a second-grade teacher in California. “If we didn’t do something right, all the boys would line up and we’d get a whack.” Charlotte learned to keep a spotless house and cater to John’s demands. When he broke her eardrum during a 1968 argument, she says, “I was ashamed. I felt like the doctor could look in my ear and figure I’d been hit by my husband because I’d done something wrong.” Finally, in 1983, after 17 years of marriage, Charlotte fled to a friend’s house. Thanks to the help of a therapist, she says, “I knew this was truly not an acceptable way for my children—or me—to live.” John Fedders’s abuse of his family was revealed in the couple’s bitter divorce trial, leading to his resignation from the SEC and return to private practice. Chronicling her marriage in her 1987 book Shattered Dreams, Fedders, now 55, showed that domestic abuse occurs even in well-off families. “She was brave enough to let people know what was happening to her,” says Jodi Finkelstein of the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence.

Fedders, who has admitted, “I’m poorer than I ever thought I would be,” moved to a small townhouse near her former home and now works three jobs—as a home health-aide supervisor, an assistant teacher and a department store saleswoman—to help put her two youngest through school. Yet, she says, “I don’t feel like I gave up anything important.” Her sister Mimi O’Donnell, 49, notices a sea change. “This is a lady who used to not let you wear shoes in her living room,” she says. “Now you sweep and get a ball of dog hair the size of a football sometimes. But it’s happy. Sterile fear is now replaced .with wonderful happiness.”

You May Like