In many ways little has changed at Jeanne White’s home in Cicero, Ind. Upstairs, in her son Ryan’s old bedroom, posters still decorate the walls, comic books fill the shelves, and George, a toy gorilla, slumps at the foot of the bed. Herbie, Ryan’s pet hamster, is here, and a small tuxedo, worn by Ryan at last year’s Academy Awards dinner, hangs in a corner, lovingly preserved in plastic.
One year has passed since that Palm Sunday morning when Ryan White’s five-year battle with AIDS ended. But “in a way it seems he has not left,” says Jeanne, 43. “Sometimes when I go in his room, I break down completely, and some days I kind of smile at all the things he got to do and how happy he was.”
Jeanne White is smiling more these days. Once terrified of public speaking (“Just be my mom, and you’ll be all right,” Ryan had advised her), she now lectures regularly to college groups about AIDS and her son’s experiences. Last week she began a six-week, 20-city tour to promote Ryan White: My Own Story, the autobiography written by Ryan with author Ann Marie Cunningham. “Ryan’s mission was for us to fight the disease instead of fighting the gays, the drug users and the so-called innocent victims.” she says. “Everyone is an innocent victim of this disease. We need to find a cure.”
To that end Jeanne established a fund in Ryan’s name at the James Whitcomb Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis the day after he died. The money will go to support research and families with AIDS-stricken children. Shortly after that she testified before Congress on behalf of the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency Act, the bill that is now funneling $221 million to cities hit hardest by AIDS. “I never want to stop doing anything,” says Jeanne. “That is when the sad times start.”
In large part Jeanne’s adjustment has been eased by the same celebrities who once befriended her son. In 1988, when she tried to repay the $16,500 Elton John had loaned her to put toward a down payment on the Cicero home, he simply put the money into a fund that Jeanne’s daughter, Andrea, now 17 and a high school junior, will eventually use for college. Phil Donahue, a pallbearer at Ryan’s funeral, has become Jeanne’s informal business adviser, and he and wife Mario Thomas sequestered the mother and her daughter at their Connecticut home for three days after Ryan’s death. Donahue makes sure, he says, that “she is consulted on whatever bears Ryan’s name, whether it is a book or a movie or a poster.”
Off the lecture circuit, White has been redecorating her Cicero bedroom in the Victorian style that she admired at the Donahue residence. She has also begun furnishing a miniature dollhouse. (“It’s the child in me. I never did anything for myself before.”) Andrea, too, has found a place beyond Ryan’s shadow. She practices roller-skating four times a week and hopes to perform in the U.S. amateur championships in Philadelphia this summer. For five months after her brother’s death, Andrea “didn’t want to come home and wanted to do whatever she wanted to do,” says Jeanne. “She had a hard time at first, but it didn’t last long.” Now Andrea wheels through Cicero in the red 1989 Mustang that Michael Jackson bought for her brother, and “she laughs a lot more,” says her grandmother Gloria Hale.
Bolstered by her $3,000 lecture fees, Jeanne, who divorced seven years ago, says she has no plans to return to the Kokomo, Ind., Delco factory where she worked for 23 years, most recently as a stock clerk. She took a leave in 1989 to care for Ryan and now hopes to keep on lecturing. Lately, she says, she has even been thinking about adopting a baby—although she admits the specter of AIDS is never far from her mind. Says Jeanne softly: “I would not want to lose another child that way.”