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Larry Kessler, whose HIV/AIDS activism changed policy and saved lives, dies at 81

In addition to leading the AIDS Action Committee, Mr. Kessler, shown in 2013, served as the director of the Boston Living Center.The Boston Globe/Boston Globe

Befitting his background as a former seminarian, Larry Kessler brought what friends saw as a saintly fervor to his role as the most active of Boston’s AIDS activists at the epidemic’s outset.

“I was religious from an early age,” he told the Globe in 1984, a year into leading the groundbreaking AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts, which he had helped found. “I was an unusual kid. I felt responsible about making sure people were not hungry, the sick were healed, that there was peace in the world.”

In a world upended by an illness that then offered no hope of long-term survival, Mr. Kessler was a vibrant life force — raising funds, enlisting volunteers, lobbying politicians, meeting with and learning from physicians, sitting bedside to comfort the dying, and consoling those they left behind. A 70-hour week felt like time off and 18-hour days were common.

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“I have no time,” he said, shrugging off his nonexistent personal life then. “The important thing is to be available to the people who need me most.”

Over the years, Mr. Kessler’s advocacy included playing a key role in expanding Medicaid coverage in Massachusetts to financially struggling patients newly diagnosed with HIV. He was 81 when he died Thursday in his home at NewBridge on the Charles in Dedham of failing health set off by knee replacement surgery several years ago that went awry.

“Larry found a way to not just do good, to meet needs when he saw them. He found a way to create institutions to continue the work,” said James Carroll, a writer and longtime friend who helped bring Mr. Kessler to Boston in the early 1970s to direct the peace and justice office at the Paulist Center in Boston.

Settling in Boston in the early 1970s, Mr. Kessler would become a dynamic force in several nonprofits around the city. KNOTT, Janet GLOBE STAFF

A founding board member of what formerly was the National AIDS Network, Mr. Kessler also had served on the National Commission on AIDS, a bipartisan panel that advised Congress and the White House on policy.

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And his advocacy reached beyond the issue for which he became best known.

As founder and director in his late 20s of the Thomas Merton Center in Pittsburgh, where he grew up, he led anti-Vietnam War activists in displaying a billowing “Stop the War” banner at a Pittsburgh Pirates opening day game as the first notes of “The Star-Spangled Banner” rang through the stadium.

After arriving in Boston in 1973, he restructured the annual Walk for Hunger fund-raiser, helping transform it into Project Bread’s year-round anti-hunger efforts.

Then one evening in early 1983, he joined others at a Fenway Community Health Center meeting to decide how Boston should respond to a new illness called AIDS, and the AIDS Action Committee soon launched.

While leading the fledgling organization, but before switching to full time later that year, Mr. Kessler was running a gift shop called A to Zoo, where reporters suddenly were pouring through the door for interviews about the emerging epidemic.

“They wanted to do television interviews,” he told the Globe in 1987, “and I’d stand there with these teddy bears in the background.”

In the beginning “I knew every patient,” he said of that time when he could visit each one of them on Christmas Day. Before long, though, “I was running around to funerals and hospitals.”

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His reputation for expertise, meanwhile, made him the adviser of choice for Boston mayors. Raymond L. Flynn and Thomas M. Menino both sought his counsel, and everyone worried that Mr. Kessler worked too much.

“I wish he’d find five minutes for himself to sit down and relax. I really want to preserve him,” the late Ann Maguire, who was then Flynn’s staff liaison to the gay and lesbian community, told the Globe in 1987.

More than a quarter century later, Menino summed up Mr. Kessler’s importance in an interview with The Daily Free Press, Boston University’s student newspaper.

“Larry Kessler,” Menino said in 2013, “is a living legend in the AIDS community.”

Born in Pittsburgh on June 20, 1942, Mr. Kessler was the younger of two sons of Rose Rodgers Kessler and George Kessler, who worked in the iron and steel industries.

Of Irish and German heritage, he grew up in a neighborhood that “accepted the German part, but not the Irish part. They’d say, ‘You don’t belong here, you belong at the Irish parish.’ That was my first encounter with discrimination.”

Attending Mass each day, he graduated from a Catholic high school and briefly pursued the priesthood at St. Mark’s Seminary and Gannon University in Erie, Pa.

“Most kids, when they think about becoming a priest, they think about saying Mass,” he recalled in 1987. “I thought more about community organizing than about sitting in a confessional.”

He left the seminary, taught religion at his former high school, and tried his hand at the ironworker trade. With a priest, he set up a program to take high school students to rural Virginia and distribute meals in Appalachia.

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Mr. Kessler also helped run a Meals on Wheels program in Pittsburgh and opened the Thomas Merton Center, a hotbed of antiwar efforts.

By the time he moved to Boston, when he was barely into his 30s, he was a seasoned activist, which showed when he led AIDS Action for more than two decades.

“He was really brilliant,” said Robert Greenwald, who taught at Harvard Law School and formerly was AIDS Action’s legal counsel. “Under his leadership so much was accomplished.”

Greenwald said that in addition to being a force behind pushing the state to expand Medicaid to cover those who had just been diagnosed with HIV, Mr. Kessler helped get state agencies to assist in setting up affordable housing for those with HIV and AIDS.

By getting patients into treatment early, the Medicaid changes “saved billions of dollars for the Commonwealth,” Greenwald said, “but most importantly, we saved the lives of so many people.”

To persuade politicians, Mr. Kessler would “challenge people on a very personal level,” said Gary Sandison, who formerly chaired the AIDS Action board and was Menino’s AIDS policy adviser. “Instead of talking about policy, he would talk about one of the clients at AIDS Action.”

In 1989, Mr. Kessler met Dana Ellsmore and they were partners almost ever since. They married in 2021, when Mr. Kessler’s health led him to move into NewBridge.

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Ellsmore, who is Mr. Kessler’s only immediate survivor, was struck from the beginning by “his thoughtfulness, his kindness, his patience. We both came to the conclusion that there was no mistake that we crossed each other’s path initially and we both felt like we were each other’s kindred spirit and soulmate.”

A gathering to celebrate Mr. Kessler’s life will be announced.

Years after retiring from AIDS Action, Mr. Kessler returned to work to direct the Boston Living Center, the Back Bay nonprofit for people living with HIV/AIDS, before retiring in 2015.

“Political activism is full of prima donnas,” Carroll had said in 1987 for a profile of Mr. Kessler. “But one thing about Larry is that everyone comes away from him saying, ‘This is not a guy interested in promoting himself.’ "

While working for the Paulist Center in the 1970s, he created the Isaac Hecker Award to honor an American Catholic active in the field of social justice, and he gave the first one to legendary activist Dorothy Day. The center honored him with the award in 1987 for his leadership during the AIDS crisis.

Never one to miss an opportunity, he used his remarks at the ceremony to sound a theme that threaded through his life’s work.

“We as a church,” he said, “have an obligation to remind our leaders that bigotry, racism, and homophobia embarrass us all.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.