Legendary AIDS activist Larry Kessler is retiring. Again.
Kessler founded the AIDS Action Committee in 1983 after the first cases of AIDS showed up in gay men in Boston, retiring in 2006. In 2013, he was recruited to direct the Boston Living Center in the Back Bay, a nonprofit community center for people living with HIV/AIDS, following “a bit of an embezzlement” crisis, as he put it, that nearly brought the center down. (Executive director Valerie Tebbetts had siphoned off more than $120,000 from the center’s savings to feed her gambling habit.)
Now that the center is thriving again, Kessler, 73, insists he’s retiring for real. He said he made the decision a month ago following a health scare that briefly hospitalized him.
“Something that mimicked a heart attack wasn’t,” said Kessler, who walks with a cane due to a bad knee. “I thought, maybe it is time. This time I think I’m ready to chill out.”
Kessler’s storied career has paralleled the trajectory of the AIDS epidemic, from the horrible days when it was commonly a death sentence to now, when it can be managed, though not cured, with the help of drugs.
He recalls a time when entire families were wiped out by AIDS — drug-addicted parents along with their children because they shared needles and infected one another.
“I’ve been here 30 months and there have been 20 deaths,” said Kessler, interviewed in his nearly empty office. “In 30 months at AIDS Action Committee, there would have been 300 deaths.”
Michael Bacon, director of Nutritional Services for Boston Living Center, credits Kessler with bringing stability and respect back to the Boston Living Center after what he called its “dark period.”
“It’s his honesty, his personality, his frankness,” said Bacon. “He’s such a comfortable individual to work with. His is probably one of the most humble, self-effacing people I’ve ever worked for. He doesn’t wear the mantle of an AIDS pioneer street fighter.”
“Compassion is ingrained in him,” said Carmen Rios, the center’s member services manager.
Kessler is quick to point out that the fight against AIDS is far from over, and he worries about a younger generation who have not learned the lessons of the epidemic and are sexually reckless and complacent.
Kessler’s last day at the office is Friday. After that, “I’m going to take a nap,” he said. “Maybe a whole week of them. And if I want to see someone, I can come here and sit with our clients.”
Still, he feels he is leaving at a hopeful time in AIDS history. “I would say working here has been fun,” he said. “None of us gets nervous every time the phone rings; in the old days, it could be a hospital calling to say one of our patients had succumbed.”