The Compassion, Courage and Commitment of the Early Walks

We had an opportunity to sit down with Susan Jester, who, along with the late Gary Rees and Albert Bell, produced the first three San Diego Walks for Life, the event that led to AIDS Walk San Diego as we know it today.

“We started in 1985 and HIV wasn’t even a word, but AIDS was a really bad word,” Jester said. “There were still a lot of unknown factors,” about the disease and how it was transmitted. “When HIV started, it was a fearsome thing; people were very frightened. I remember that families would not come and pick up the bodies of the men who had died, and guys would put out the clothes of roommates or partners who were sick or had died.

Today, while some still struggle with the stigma and shame all too often associated with HIV/AIDS, the world is unimaginably different than it was when the first San Diego Walk for Life took place in the mid-1980s. Back then, there was so much fear that neither HIV nor AIDS could even appear in the name of the event.

Susan Jester
Gary Rees

One part of our vow remains the same — to never forget those early days of the epidemic or the indifference and outright hostility with which those impacted by the disease were treated. And certainly to never forget all those we’ve lost.

And, as it has been since the event’s first heroic days, this event is a community testament powered by compassion, courage and commitment. This is as true today as it was more than 25 years ago when a brave group of San Diegans stood up and stepped out on behalf of people who were being ravaged by this disease.

“People just kept getting sick – one after another after another – then three to six months later, they were dead,” Jester said. “No one could figure it out. In the meantime, protesters were starting to come into Hillcrest from other parts of San Diego with signs and we could not get the City or the Feds to do anything. It really 

started to piss me off, but I knew in my heart that I could do something to bring about some dialogue on this.”

So she did. According to Jester, the Los Angeles AIDS Walk had started a couple of years prior, and, “I saw all of our people were going up there to the L.A. Walk when we so desperately needed funds here. That angered me, too, and I just got it in my head that we could do a walk here, too. I met with Nicole (Murray-Ramirez) and then David Coppini and Rob Merrill and I found one of the consultants that had worked on AIDS Walk L.A. and asked if they would help us; show us how it worked. Ken Martin helped, Chris Shaw, all these guys really stepped up, and we were doing this out of my garage.”

The first San Diego Walk for Life drew about 1,500 people, and took place near the  

Albert Bell
First Walk for Life San Diego

San Diego County Administration building, with a brief program and a walk around Harbor Island and back.

“I was shocked at how many people were brave enough and cared enough to show up,” Jester recalled. “There was such pain and agony during that time. It was a heartbreaking, gut wrenching, angering thing. It was overwhelming. Here was this so-called gay disease that we couldn’t get anyone to pay attention to and we finally got some press that was in a positive light about dealing with the disease and it made me realize that this was a start. That it was just the start.

“It was a spiritual experience that day,” Jester said. “A lot of people were coming out of their closet, whether it was the gay closet or the HIV closet. I have great admiration for all those folks who did show up. It did take great courage in those days.”

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