fb-pixelLarry Kessler, pioneering AIDS activist, died Thursday at 81 Skip to main content

Larry Kessler, the pioneering AIDS activist, changed thousands of lives

Kessler, who died Thursday at 81, was a crusader against war, poverty, intolerance, and ignorance

Larry Kessler, founder of the AIDS Action Committee, pictured in 2015.Keith Bedford/Globe Staff/file

During the early days of the AIDS epidemic, fear ruled in Boston, and everywhere. It seemed like legions, most of them gay men, were falling to a ruthless illness without a cure, or even a treatment.

Far too many of them suffered alone, shunned by their families and employers as they grew sicker. Even some health workers refused to go near them, leaving food outside their hospital rooms as they battled the illness.

Larry Kessler sent flowers to as many as he could.

He was the founding director of an organization called AIDS Action, which advocated for and provided services to those with HIV and AIDS, building the activism and spirit of community that helped bring LGBTQ people out of the shadows, and then made them an unstoppable force demanding the same rights as everybody else.

Advertisement



In the mid-1980s, though, the new organization was stretched thin, its funds falling far short of the community’s needs.

Deputy Director Cheryl Schaffer worried about the cost. Why did Kessler insist on sending flowers to everybody?

“He very patiently said, ‘The nurses won’t go into the rooms and the families aren’t there,’” Schaffer recalled. “‘We send flowers to everybody so they know somebody cares about them, and so that the people in the hospital know somebody cares about them.’ He had that kind of genius.”

Kessler, who devoted his big, loving life to championing the rights and dignity of the unluckiest among us, died on Thursday, at 81. With his passing, we have lost a fearless pioneer — a crusader against war, poverty, intolerance, and ignorance. Kessler stood with those battling HIV and AIDS when too few others would, and bore witness when they lost the war.

“People were dying left and right,” Schaffer recalled, of that first dark decade of the epidemic. “We just kept on, with Larry exemplifying how to do that.”

Advertisement



That meant giving those living with the disease a place to gather and help each other, and honoring those who died with proper funerals. It meant pushing legislators and other officials to meet the crisis, and spreading life-saving information on safe sex and drug-use practices that was so bereft of euphemism that it shocked conservatives and others. The MBTA refused to carry AIDS Action ads advocating condom use until a judge ordered it to do so. It also meant applying his sense of play and his humor, even — or especially — when things were grim. Like the time he threw a party for thousands of clients and volunteers at AIDS Action, and insisted on hosting in an Easter Bunny costume. No one is going to like this, Schaffer thought. They were delighted, as Kessler knew they would be. He was almost always right.

Kessler was powerful enough to move policy and transform thousands of lives, but he never acted like it, and abhorred attention. His husband Dana Ellsmore said he was usually mortified when people recognized him in public.

“Larry hated the spotlight,” Ellsmore said. “I don’t know if he ever grasped the gravity and scope of the impact he had in this world.”

Raised Catholic, and devoted to the social justice movement led by Dorothy Day, Kessler, who was born in Pittsburgh, was an anti-poverty worker there and threw himself into efforts to end the war in Vietnam. In 1972, he met the writer James Carroll — then a priest in Boston — in a DC lockup after they were both arrested with a group protesting the war in the Capitol rotunda. Carroll convinced Kessler to come to Boston in 1973 to run the Walk for Hunger, which Kessler eventually grew into anti-hunger juggernaut Project Bread.

Advertisement



Kessler had briefly considered becoming a priest himself, but “he did not need the permission of the church to embrace his vocation,” Carroll said. “He embraced it because he saw people in need and tried to help them.”

Kessler remained that way even after the Catholic Church broke his heart with its appalling response to the clergy sex abuse scandal, Ellsmore said.

He finally retired for good in 2015. He threw himself into the garden at the couple’s Hyde Park home, tending to his beloved tulips and daffodils. After hours outside, he came in “looking like a 4-year-old who got into a fight with a mud puddle,” his husband said.

The garden bent to Kessler’s nurturing, his joy, and his will, just as the world did.


Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her @GlobeAbraham.