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Florida Keys News
Saturday, November 30, 2013
Local AIDS memorial adding 15 names to etched death toll

The city will unveil the $160,000 expansion of the Key West AIDS Memorial at 5 p.m. Sunday, adding 15 names to the list of 1,220 souls taken by the disease.

Newly inscribed in the seaside memorial's flat black Zimbabwe granite are the names Tia Marie Harris, James "Jimmy" Nelson, Jean Claude "JC" Gosselin, Raymond "Ray" Barringer, Gary Kowalski, Allan Hoffman, William Carl Hazelton, John Ondusko, Dorothea Harris, George B. Jefferson, Blake Ireland, Terril Lane Schmidt, Chris Sturms, Dennis Nolan and Keith A. Doan.

Sixteen years after it was created, the black granite slabs planted at the foot of the White Street Pier became filled after last year's annual candlelight ceremony.

"I know so many names on that thing," said Pam Hobbs, an artist who moved to Key West in 1977 fresh from graduation from the Kansas City Art Institute.

Hobbs recalled the early 1980s in Key West, when she worked in the service industry and watched the island community unravel.

"Every day, we would go look in the obituaries and say, 'Oh my god, not Steven, not Frank, not Tom,'" Hobbs said Friday. "The gay community took a huge blow. It killed a lot of very talented, sensitive, wonderful men and women."

The expansion was paid for through two grants by the Monroe County Tourist Development Council given to the county in different grant cycles, said Jon Allen, the nonprofit's president. The county owns the land beneath the new section, atop a corner of Higgs Beach.

The new slabs of granite are placed vertically atop concrete with a few benches on the side facing the ocean. One of the new quotations is from Robert Frost's classic poem "The Road Less Traveled."

World Aids Day is Sunday and the city will hold its vigil at 4:30 p.m. outside the Glynn Archer School building, 1302 White St. Participants will march by candlelight to the memorial, where a ceremony is set to begin at 5 p.m.

The nonprofit created the memorial in 1997 and, along with the city of Key West, ensures its maintenance. Each year, the Friends group administers the addition of new names. Built with private donations and given to the city in 1997, the memorial's inaugural ceremony honored 730 people who had died from the disease.

Key West in 1988 had one of the highest AIDS rates per capita in the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control -- 121 cases per 100,000 people. On an island of some 25,000 year-round residents, the epidemic shattered the community at a time when few understood what it was and how it was spread.

"It also was becoming a refuge for hundreds of people who were diagnosed elsewhere but felt they could not remain at home in what many considered to be hostile environments," the Friends' website explains.

People moved to Key West, driving up the numbers of the infected and straining the tiny city's medical resources, the nonprofit says.

Hobbs wasn't planning on attending Sunday's ceremony, saying she visits the White Street Pier often. The path off Atlantic Boulevard to the pier forces passersby to walk through the black granite memorial.

"I stop and I'll take a look; I know where some of my friends are," Hobbs said. "I don't need a ceremony, because it's my history and I just have fond memories of a lot of those people. It's a great memorial to them because it makes you remember them."

Hobbs also knows survivors of the disease. One friend told her he was HIV positive the same day she announced to him she was pregnant.

Her son is 27 today, and her friend with HIV is among the living.

"He is alive and doing well," Hobbs said. "And another friend who immediately cleaned up his act and is still very much alive."

gfilosa@keysnews.com

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