On Palm Sunday morning, minutes after Ryan White died in an Indianapolis hospital, his mother, Jeanne, hugged PEOPLE correspondent Bill Shaw and, sobbing, said, “Do a bang-up story. Tell everyone what you saw here this week.”
What Bill and photographer Taro Yamasaki witnessed was the last valiant chapter in the life of Ryan White, for whom they shared an affection far deeper than ever anticipated. They first met him “three years ago,” says Bill, when they interviewed and photographed him for “Breaking America’s Heart,” our cover story on AIDS. “I met him on a stifling, hot day, yet he was wrapped in a blanket, warming his hands by the stove,” says Bill. “There was this amazing aura and presence radiating from that little kid.”
After that first encounter, “Jeanne and I and Taro and Ryan clicked,” says Bill. In the spring of 1988, when Ryan was feeling healthier and had settled into his new school in Cicero, Ind., Bill and Taro spent a week with him doing another cover story, “The Quiet Victories of Ryan White.” Despite having won a landmark court case, after panicked neighbors tried to prevent his attending public school in Kokomo, Ind., “Ryan did not like to be written about or photographed,” says Taro. “He just wanted to be a normal kid. But he knew what we were doing was important—to educate as many people as possible.”
This month, Taro and Bill would be called again—to the private vigil of family and friends as Ryan lay dying. Through Taro’s pictures and Bill’s hospital dispatches, edited for this week’s cover story by senior writer Jack Friedman and senior editor Roger Wolmuth, PEOPLE’s readers are made bedside witness to the sad, gentle passing of Ryan, perhaps now the best-known of this country’s 76,000-plus AIDS fatalities. “It tore my heart out,” says Bill. “I was honored to spend time with these wonderful people.” Adds Taro: “Much of the time there, I was not a photographer, but just one of the people that cared about him.”
Like Shaw and Yamasaki, PEOPLE’s editors were also impressed by the steadfast devotion of singer Elton John to the White family. “A lot of well-known people undertake personal causes,” says Managing Editor Lanny Jones. “But seldom have we seen someone of Elton’s stature act with such warmth and humility. He, too, was inspired by Ryan.”
Two years ago when Ryan was talking about AIDS to students in Nebraska, another boy bluntly asked Ryan how it felt knowing he was going to die. Showing the beyond-his-years maturity that endeared him to all, Ryan replied, “It’s how you live your life that counts.” Thank you, Ryan, for honoring us with yours.