John was diagnosed with AIDS in 1984 at a time when many people – even doctors – still struggled to understand the disease. At the time, many were still struggling with people being gay.
In fact, when John called home to tell his parents he was gay, they took him to a doctor in Harrisburg. His mom, Ruth Schmidt remembered the doctor saying simply – “He was born this way.” There’s nothing to do or change. From that moment on, Schmidt said she accepted it and moved on. It was her son, after all. “He and I had a connection,” she said. “I supported him in anything and everything.”
Sitting in her home at the Cross Keys Village, Schmidt held the framed image of the quilt in her hands trying to remember. After John’s death, she thought about making a panel for the AIDS Memorial Quilt. “Early on, I was quite taken with the thing,” she said. A lot of friends wanted to help out to fill the six parts.
Her finger lightly touching the image, she ran through the list. Golf – from the two ministers from church who took him golfing. (None of them were any good, but they had fun.) A photo of all four of the Schmidt boys. A painting John did that was used in his memorial service. The St. Joseph University pennant – he finished his degree there and loved the school. A Trojan for his high school band. Jazz – he loved jazz. A hand done by one of Schmidt’s grandchildren who wanted to be a part of it. And that hat. John always wore that hat. And it was usually backwards – “typical John,” his mother said with a laugh.
The two were close. “We were buddy-buddy rather than mother and son,” she said. John came 10 years after Schmidt’s third son. “He was quite the surprise.” With the other boys older and moving on in life, it left the pair plenty of time to get into some trouble – usually shopping. They would shop then grab some food. He was a great dresser and loved clothes. Any time he picked something out for her, she just had to try it on.
John started out school at Penn State University. It was within that first year there that he was diagnosed with AIDS. By then, he had decided to move to Philadelphia, where his mother said he flourished. It was his happy place – great apartment, great friends, and a great job. He started working at a law firm and loved it there. He worked there until he got too sick to work anymore.
In Philly, John also had a great doctor, she added. For awhile, medication kept his symptoms at bay. But eventually it didn’t help anymore. That’s when he came back to York. He spent his last two or three weeks in the hospital, Schmidt said. “It seemed like it dragged by then, but now, it really flew by.”
Schmidt has seen her son’s quilt twice since she mailed it away and she’s excited to see it once more here at home. She’s even planning to stay in York with a friend so she can go a few times.
“It’ll be wonderful,” she said. “It’s a connection you have. It’s the only connection I have because he’s ashes … It was a hard road, but we managed.” Back then, there wasn’t much support – for those living with HIV/AIDS and for the LGBT community.
Even at the end, John was making plans. He wanted a guide dog. He made some calls, tried to pull some strings. Schmidt laughed recalling how much she didn’t want him to get that dog. She didn’t want to be taking care of it.
“He was hoping to get better. To get a cure,” Schmidt said.
(Photo and video by Randy Flaum, York Storyman.)