I first met Elizabeth Glaser in the spring of 1967. I knew her as Betsy Meyer when we were both students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She was one of the coolest girls I ever knew…smart, funny, confident, warm and great looking. Betsy and I remained friendly until she graduated. I heard bits about her from friends, but it wasn’t until years later that we reconnected. She called out of the blue, said she was coming to D.C., and would love to see me and my husband, Robert Barnett, who had also attended UW. We went to dinner and reminisced, but I could tell something was troubling her. Finally, she said that she had something important…and very difficult to tell me, but that she wanted to have one last dinner “like old times,” because what she had to say would change everything. She began telling the story of how she had contracted AIDS and passed it on to her children, Ariel and Jake. After she finished, we just sat in our back booth in the restaurant, crying and holding hands. Through the tears, Elizabeth explained that there were no drugs that could be used to treat children with AIDS and she had come to Washington to change that. During her trip to Washington, Elizabeth met with officials at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and on Capitol Hill, but to protect her family, she did not publicly disclose her status until years later, when she shared her story with the Los Angeles Times.
As you can imagine, the news was devastating, but at first, we were much more concerned about the health consequences than anything else. In those days, people with AIDS were dying quickly. I honestly thought if the same thing happened to me, I would crawl into bed, pull the covers over my head and never emerge. But Elizabeth was just not the type of person to feel sorry for herself. Even after Ariel died, Elizabeth would stay with my family in D.C. and always made a point to spend time with my daughter, Meredith. She would cuddle her, help with her homework, talk with her….and yes, laugh with her. I am not sure I could have embraced someone else’s child, when I had just lost my own, but that was Elizabeth.
Shortly after her first visit to Washington, D.C., Elizabeth decided to start a foundation devoted to helping find a cure for pediatric AIDS. I introduced her to an old friend of mine, Al Checci, a successful businessman, who in turn connected Elizabeth to Bob Burkett, an advisor to the media mogul, Ted Field--and the rest is history. After a period of intense work, The Pediatric AIDS Foundation was up and running.
Elizabeth also continued to lobby NIH and meet with members of Congress on both sides of aisle. She even secured a private meeting with President Reagan and the First Lady. Her great triumph was getting Senators Howard Metzenbaum (liberal Democrat) and Orrin Hatch (conservative Republican) to co-sponsor one of the first HIV/AIDS fundraisers in Washington, D.C.—all without disclosing her status publicly. Cher performed during the fundraiser and said that she was there at the request of the teacher who had taught her daughter, Chastity, to read. That teacher, of course, was Elizabeth, but even at our table; very few people knew that secret.
Elizabeth shared her story with the Los Angeles Times in 1989 to pre-empt an exposé in the National Enquirer about her family’s struggle with HIV/AIDS. After she went public—her face—the face of an HIV-positive person—was everywhere. I honestly think Elizabeth is one of the main reasons AIDS started to lose its stigma.
If you look at the progress that has been made to treat and prevent pediatric HIV/AIDS since Elizabeth started her work, you have to be awed by the power of one person to bring about change. I know that
Elizabeth would be proud of the work the Foundation has done in her name for the past 25 years. Most of all, I think she would be proud of Jake. I hope that he understands how much she loved him. And through it all, his mom remained as she was when I first met her…smart, funny, confident, warm, great looking…and, oh, yes…let’s add tough as nails.
Rita Braver is a senior correspondent for "CBS News Sunday Morning." She attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison with Elizabeth Glaser and served as friend and resource for Elizabeth during her courageous efforts to build support and funding to fight pediatric AIDS.