Robb’s Life Chapter 37 – A Crumbling Spirit and Hateful Politics in February 1996

Robb Feb 21 1996-4

A weary Robb puts groceries away. In February 1996 he was losing most of what he ate.

Twenty years ago this week, Robb Dussliere was losing hope. He was fighting fatigue, losing weight, and not keeping very much food down.

He was also horrified by the presidential campaign, and some of the hateful rhetoric from Republican candidates like Pat Buchanan. In February 1996, Buchanan was Donald Trump and Ted Cruz rolled into one. Because he was too tired for a lot of activity, Robb spent more time on the couch watching TV, especially the political coverage.

It’s ironic that Pat Buchanan’s hateful speech at the GOP convention in 1992 was the last straw that turned me into a flaming liberal. Now, as I went to Robb’s house to record this week’s feature, we sat and watched some of the coverage on CNN and both agreed that we didn’t like much of what we were seeing.

Robb Feb 21 1996-2

Robb peels an orange while Buddy looks on with great interest.

Buchanan lashed out at gays in the 1996 campaign. Robb was the first gay man I had ever really known, and after spending 10 months working on this series with him, the Buchanan rhetoric that disgusted me four years earlier now made my blood boil.

It was now impossible for me to hate someone just because he or she had a different sexual orientation. Hearing words of intolerance like this coming from a candidate for president did not go over well.

But most disturbing of all was how, week by week, I was seeing Robb’s spirit crumbling. When I began the series the previous April, Robb and I were cordial and friendly, shaking hands when I left each shoot. But by the time I shot this story, I could not leave without giving him a hug.

You can keep Robb’s legacy alive and help support homeless HIV and AIDS clients in the Quad Cities by donating to the DeLaCerda House. Just go to www.delacerdahouseinc.org and click on the “Donate” button on the right side of the page.

 

Robb’s Life Chapter 36 – Robb’s Final Public Appearance

During the final year of his life, Robb Dussliere had two top priorities:

  1. Reach out to the public to educate people, particularly young people, how to avoid HIV and AIDS.
  2. To open the shelter for homeless HIV and AIDS clients in the Quad Cities — a shelter that is still operated by the DeLaCerda House.
Robb Feb 14 1996-1

Robb flashes a goofy smile at the end of his final public appearance near Valentine’s Day, 1996.

Near Valentine’s Day, Robb and Beth Wehrman, executive director of the AIDS Project Quad Cities (now called The Project), met a group of high school students at WHBF-TV, where we broadcast the “Robb’s Life” series.

I didn’t realize it would be his final public appearance. He looked good. A little skinny, but good. And he flashes me a goofy smile as the students are leaving the studio, so I guess I hoped that meant he was doing okay.

Looking at this old, primitive news set (by today’s standards), a lot of memories come back. This is where I first met Beth Wehrman. We did the public affairs program, called “4 Front” at the time, about the AIDS Project a few months before I met Robb. Because of that interview, she decided to approach me with the idea of doing “Robb’s Life” after the number one TV news station in town — KWQC — turned down the idea in 1995.

Robb Feb 14 1996-8

Robb and Beth Wehrman talking to students on the old News 4 set.

Beth was a kind, caring human being, and she carried the weight of the world on her shoulders as she saw one client buried after another. She had to have known Robb was not long for this earth.

I was news director of WHBF-TV at the time, and added Robb’s Life to my daily frantic duties. I was also a single dad (divorced) with two teenage daughters living at home. Looking back, I’m not sure how I managed it all.

Usually, I came into the station by 8:30 a.m., held a news meeting where we decided what we would do that day, then helped to keep all the pieces running and the balls in the air, putting out fires and regrouping constantly to make sure the news was filled by 6:00. I often served as assignment editor if he was out sick or if he had moved on to a bigger station in another market.

I got into news because I wanted to write. My love for video attracted me to TV, but somewhere along the way, I went from being a reporter and anchor to being a producer and then a news director.

Robb Feb 14 1996-5

Beth and Robb on the old “4 Front” set.

It was a fate worse than death.

WHBF was my third station as news director. I always seemed to be hired at the last-place station, where morale in the newsroom was poor, the reporting staff was inexperienced, the budget was small, and the equipment was more primitive than the competition.

Instead of being consumed by reporting and creativity each day, the news director has to worry about competing with the other stations in town, but mostly he is consumed with which anchor is throwing a tantrum, which videographer has put a dent in a news car, how you are going to hire kids with talent for their first jobs in TV, pay them starvation wages and endure their mistakes while coaching them to improve their skills so they can move to a bigger market and earn more money, leaving you behind to hire another kid at starvation wages to endure his or her mistakes as you worry about why the anchors won’t come to work on time and why half the staff dislikes you simply because management brought you in as news director.

It is a strange life choice to be in TV news, especially in management.

In Cincinnati, where I was a news producer working with Jerry Springer for a while at WLWT, I was told I should be in management because of my “people skills.” I didn’t realize that going into management was exactly what I didn’t need. I should have been doing stories like “Robb’s Life.”

Robb Dussliere - Ken Gullette Live 3 WHBF 1995

With Robb broadcasting live on WHBF-TV in 1995.

You’ll have to forgive me for the digression. Looking back at the year I spent with Robb, I am sometimes disappointed that this marked the end of my TV career instead of a new beginning.

“Robb’s Life” usually meant an additional 10 hours per week, but it was my chance to flex my reporting and creative muscles and to be a role model for my young reporters, showing them now to shoot, report, and edit a series by pushing the creative envelope. Some of the young folks got it and some of the anchors got it, but occasionally, a reporter or videographer or anchor became jealous that my work was receiving notice and awards. In some ways, it was a no-win situation. In other ways, I was doing the best work of my career, and I didn’t give a damn what some of the more insecure people in the newsroom (there are always a few) thought.

Each week, Robb and I would decide what was happening in his life and I would take the camera gear (it had to weigh nearly 50 pounds back then) and I would follow him around, then look at everything I shot and edit it into something coherent that told the story of the week, keeping his life story moving forward.

It added a lot of pressure to my week, but it was a labor of love by this point. I didn’t know how long the story would go. I wish it had gone on for a lot longer. When Robb appeared at WHBF-TV on this day, he had two months to live.

As I coped with the newsroom, the series, single parenthood, and trying to salvage a social life (I became engaged a few days after this story was shot), I would go home and think that what I was going through was nothing compared with what Robb was going through. He always had the hardest part of this deal, and I never lost sight of that for a second.

You can still support the DeLaCerda House and keep Robb’s legacy alive. Just follow this link to the DeLaCerda House website and click on the “Donate” button on the right side of the screen.

Robb’s Life Chapter 35 – Feeling Worse but Still Focused on the Shelter

Robb Feb 96 - 3

Robb throws his hands in the air, frustrated that he just lost his lunch.

By February 7, 1996, Robb’s body was not tolerating the AIDS drugs he had started during the previous weeks. He was energetic while sitting on the couch, but weak when he engaged in activity.

More troubling was the fact that he was losing a lot of the food he was eating each day.

Despite feeling badly, Robb was still directing the renovation of the shelter for DeLaCerda House, which would provide transitional housing for homeless HIV and AIDS clients in the Quad Cities. Getting the shelter open was Robb’s main mission in life, along with staying alive.

I went over to his house to do our weekly story. Fortunately, his father Lorney was there, and while I was taping, John Brown stopped by.

This is one of the rare times that my voice was heard. When Robb was bending over the sink, I asked what happened. Then I answer when he asks what time it is.

Now that it is 20 years later, and I have had my own serious health issues, I know the feeling of frustration he displays when he throws his hands in the air. At this point, Robb’s body is rebelling, and there is nothing he can do about it.

Robb’s Life Chapter 34 –Drug Treatments Intensify as Robb’s Health Slips

Robb and Sandee 1

Nurse Sandee Millage talks with Robb about possible side effects associated with a more intense drug treatment.

Things were getting a little more serious for Robb Dussliere during the first week of February, 20 years ago (1996). He had been throwing up blood, so his drug treatment intensified.

I went with Robb to see AIDS nurse Sandee Millage, who gave him such kind, compassionate care. He would make her laugh with his sense of humor, despite how badly he was feeling. Throughout this series, we met the finest people — Beth Wehrman, Dr. Louis Katz, Sandee, and others — all dedicated to helping people who found themselves struggling with HIV and AIDS.

At this point, Robb was beginning to realize he was heading downhill. I think I was still in denial, expecting him to bounce back again.

You can donate to help people who are still struggling with this disease in the Quad Cities. Please go to www.delacerdahouseinc.org and click on the “Donate” button on the right side of the screen.

 

Robb’s Life Chapter 33 -Life-Saving Funds from Ryan White

During the week of January 23, 1996, Robb Dussliere went to Springfield to provide input to state agencies about the distribution of Ryan White funds to help people with HIV and AIDS in Illinois.

Ryan White

Ryan White, 1971-1990

Ryan White funds were named for the young AIDS patient who was befriended by Elton John and became one of the most famous early victims of the AIDS epidemic. Ryan, a hemophiliac who acquired HIV from a blood treatment, died 6 years before this story was broadcast. He was one of the first people who made the world realize that AIDS was not just a “gay” disease.

Robb’s activism was important. He knew that he was lucky to participate in meetings like this, where decisions were made that affected the lives of real people. And since he depended on some of these funds for his own rent and health care, Robb had a personal stake in the decisions being made.

Today, after all these years, people living with HIV and AIDS still need support. The DeLaCerda House, Robb’s number one charity during the final year of his life, provides housing and other support to those who need help while living with this illness. You can donate by going to www.delacerdahouseinc.org and clicking on the “Donate” button on the right side of the page.

Robb’s Life Chapter 32 -Ringing in 1996 by with a Little Sweat and a Lot of Spackle

Robb-Jan-96-71996 began with Robb with a little sweat and a little spackle, still working hard to get the house ready to open so homeless HIV and AIDS clients could have a place to stay. Within 5 months, the house would be named “Robb’s House” and would be owned and operated by the DeLaCerda House, a nonprofit organization.

We had been doing Robb’s Life stories since April, almost nine months. He had not expected to live to see 1996, but here he was, making the most of his time.

Robb-Jan-96-3I was disappointed when we shot this story right after the first of the year that he had celebrated his 34th birthday on New Year’s Eve and had not told me that his birthday was coming up. I’m not sure what bothered me the most — that I didn’t know his birthday (how could I have not asked this basic question?) or that he didn’t tell me about it. My holidays had been very busy, with a new relationship that would become a marriage in September of 1996, and with a trip to Lexington to visit friends and family. But for 20 years, I have regretted not being at Robb’s 34th birthday party with my camcorder.

I would not have another chance.

In this episode, Robb also shows the permanent IV that was put into his chest for more effective medicine delivery. At this point, every day was a gift.

You can still donate to the DeLaCerda House and help keep Robb’s legacy alive. Go to www.delacerdahouseinc.org and click on the “Donate” button on the right side of the screen.

 

Robb’s Life Chapter 31 – A Special Delivery for Christmas

Headstone-4

“This (photo) is what I’m sending for Christmas presents,” Robb jokes.

Just in time for Christmas in 1995, a major item was checked off Robb’s To-Do-List. The headstone that he and his parents designed was delivered by Moline Monument to St. Mary’s Cemetery in East Moline.

You may remember that in May, Robb and his parents — Lorney and Hattie — chose their grave site during a tour of the cemetery. Now, the project was complete!

It isn’t easy for three people to decide on the design of a headstone, which will identify them for perhaps hundreds of years, or until the stone is worn down by time. This story shows the final steps in the design process, then Robb, Lorney and Hattie are at the cemetery as the headstone is delivered and installed.

Headstone-Robb-Lorney-Hattie

Robb, Lorney, and Hattie watch as the headstone is installed.

None of us knew, of course, that Robb only had four months to live. He may have suspected this would be his last Christmas, but he had suspected it the previous year, too. And he had recently signed up for a new drug trial, so anything could happen.

I think back to this time, and I don’t believe I gave him a Christmas gift that year. Perhaps I was still trying to keep a bit of professional distance, being a reporter, but I regret it now. If I could do it again, I would have made a big deal of it. Once someone is gone, however, there are no do-overs. Insert deep sigh here.

For 20 years, I have cracked up over Robb’s joke at the end of this story, and how Lorney reacts to it. Even in the middle of a profound, potentially depressing event, Robb could lighten the mood.