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Stoner led crusade against disease that claimed his life

Sunday, May 23, 1999

By Anita Srikameswaran, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

You couldn't talk about AIDS in this town without mentioning Kerry Stoner. Stoner, who died in 1993, was one of the founders of the Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force and its first executive director. He appeared on television, spoke at fund-raisers and lobbied in Harrisburg for AIDS causes. His impact was so profound that when he retired from the task force, City Council declared March 30, 1992, "Kerry Stoner Day" to honor the man and his achievements.

  Marge Stoner, mother of late Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force leader Kerry Stoner, recalls that her son asked her to stop dyeing her hair because "he'd like to see my hair gray before he left." (Andy Starnes, Post-Gazette)

"He certainly had no intention of becoming the poster boy for AIDS," said his friend and colleague Anthony Silvestre, a co-investigator of the Pitt Men's Study. "He had his head down, he was working real hard, then he looks up and he's the AIDS person, one of the most important AIDS [experts] in the state."

Audiences were not drawn by Stoner's experiences as an HIV-positive man. In fact, it wasn't until October 1990 that he revealed his infection, in a letter he sent to the media.

"Early blood draws frozen from my first visit in April of 1984 revealed that I was among those who had unknowingly become infected with HIV, perhaps sometime in the very early '80s or even late '70s, before we had a name for this disease or an understanding of its transmission, treatment or prevention," he wrote.

Stoner's parents, Marge and Dick, knew that he had the virus and had reassured their son that their support would not waver.

"I sort of suspicioned it long before he told us he had AIDS," his mother said. "He had this cold that never left him. For a winter and a summer, it was still there."

His life began as the third of five children and the first son at his parents' dairy farm in Alverton, Westmoreland County. He graduated from Washington and Jefferson University as an English teacher, but soon decided a career in education was not for him. He was attending college when he told his parents that he was gay.

"It was a shock," said his mother, 68. Stoner dated girls and went to the high school prom. But "you have your children and you love them unconditionally regardless."

Stoner moved to Pittsburgh and managed a local gay night club called the Crossover. He soon heard about the Pitt Men's Study and began helping bar owners and researchers communicate with each other. When the study's community advisory board suggested that the task force be created, he volunteered.

Soon, he was an important figure on the HIV landscape, helping the task force grow from a group of volunteers into a sophisticated -- and funded -- health services agency. People regularly turned to him to get information about the disease.

"He couldn't go anywhere without somebody coming up to him and saying, 'I have to talk to you,' " said Cyndee Klemanski, who worked with him on the task force and remembered many an interrupted dinner date. "He didn't have a life outside of AIDS."

Stoner stepped down from the task force in 1992. He had lost weight and suspected that his health would deteriorate. But he fought for life to the end, his mother said.

Ten years ago, Marge Stoner liked to dye her hair.

"He said to me, 'Mom, let your hair go gray,' " she remembered. "I said, 'Why?' He said he'd like to see my hair gray before he left." Her hair is no longer blond like her first son's; she doesn't color it anymore.

A few days before Kerry died at his Highland Park home at age 39, his father sat on his bed and held his hand. The older man talked of the love he had for his son and the many successes of his short life. Kerry immediately included his friends and colleagues in the achievements.

On June 2, 1993, Stoner's mother went to his room to find him agitated and thrashing a little on the bed.

"I went over to him and gathered him up, and I said, 'Mum's here,' " she recalled. "And he just calmed down like that." She left the room briefly and upon her return, Stoner's friend Ray Bolan and Silvestre told her he was gone.

Six years later, Marge Stoner still cries as she picks beans in the garden, and she suspects that her husband sheds tears as he rides the tractor. Every day, she passes Kerry's picture on an end table in the living room and says good morning. "Every time I plant a flower, I tell him it's for him," she said.

Dick Stoner, 72, made a cross out of utility poles and planted it at the peak of Alverton Cemetery, about 50 yards from Kerry's grave. For years to come, it will be seen for miles around, because it soars straight into the sky.

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