Robb’s Life Chapter 50 – Robb Dussliere’s Funeral and the Final Episode of Robb’s Life

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The last video shot during our year-long series was a slow zoom in to Robb’s name on the headstone.

Robb Dussliere’s funeral was held on April 23, 1996. A week or so before he died, I was at home, knowing I would have to shoot this story, and suddenly I envisioned a slow zoom in to Robb’s name on the Dussliere headstone. It would be the last piece of video I would shoot, and then I would dissolve to a backward look at his life until his baby pictures.

I sat at my kitchen table and cried my eyes out, knowing that this would be the final shot after our year together. It broke my heart.

The most memorable part of the funeral service was when Jacob, Robb’s nephew, says he has the movie “Batman Forever.” The other kids laugh because it is such an inappropriate comment considering the circumstances, but such an honest comment from a child who doesn’t really understand what is happening. When I said, “I’ll bet Uncle Robb liked that movie,” (past tense) Jacob replied, “He does.” It is so poignant, because he doesn’t realize Robb is gone. Robb would have seen the humor in it.

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Father Levitt at the graveside service.

After the graveside service, on a beautiful spring day, I waited until everyone left, reluctantly walking to their cars and slowly driving out of St. Mary’s Cemetery in East Moline. I don’t think anyone wanted to say goodbye to Robb.

I sat the camera in the grass, kneeled behind it, and as I zoomed slowly in on Robb’s name, the tears flowed. The pressure in my face was tremendous as I tried to keep from crying out loud. Later, when I got back to the editing room and was reviewing the video from the service, I got to this shot and I could hear myself crying on the video, picked up by the natural sound microphone.

One of the saddest days of my life. I used part of the final interview with Robb in this last piece, asking him how he wanted to be remembered. I am so happy he is still remembered, and I know he would be happy, too. Thank you all for watching and honoring this fine young man with me. He would be 54 now, probably still making us laugh instead of cry.

This was the last official story in the Robb’s Life series on WHBF-TV.

Robb’s Life Chapter 49 – Robb Dussliere’s Obituary on WHBF-TV April 20 1996

The day after Robb Dussliere passed away was a Saturday. I went to the station and began planning Robb’s obituary, which would make up most of the first segment of the news that evening.

I went to Robb’s parents’ home to interview his dad, Lorney. I called Beth Wehrman, the executive director of the AIDS Project Quad Cities, and asked her to come to the station for a live interview on the air.

Then I spent the afternoon editing an obituary feature that would maintain the characteristics of the series — no reporter voice.

This is the segment that was broadcast on WHBF-TV on Saturday, April 20, 1996, with Steve Smith anchoring.


You can donate to the DeLaCerda House and help support homeless people who have HIV and AIDS. It was Robb’s favorite charity during the final months of his life. If you can donate, please go to www.delacerdahouseinc.org and click on the “Donate” button at the top of the page.

Robb’s Life Chapter 46 – A Tribute to Hattie Dussliere

The last time I visited Robb before he passed away, he was sleeping and his mom, Hattie, was watching over him. As his body shut down, Robb slept more.

A week or so earlier, I had interviewed Robb for the last time, because it was obvious that he could go at any time, an observation that he made, too. During the interview, I asked him to talk about his mom.

Having lost a child 16 years earlier, I had an idea of the pain Hattie and Lorney were experiencing, but my daughter died at only 6 weeks old. I can’t imagine how I would have recovered if 34 years of memories were in my head.

This is the story that aired on April 15, 1996 — a tribute to a wonderful mom, looking at her dying son through the eyes of love.

Robb’s Life Chapter 45 – A Tribute to Lawrence “Lorney” Dussliere

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Lawrence (“Lorney”) Dussliere holding his son’s hand while Robb sleeps in the hospital.

Robb was dying in March and early April, 1996. Throughout the year we had been documenting Robb’s life, his parents had been by his side every step of the way.

You might think that this is no big deal. They are the parents. They should be supportive, right?

Unfortunately, many parents abandon their children when HIV and AIDS enter the picture. This is one of the reason Robb worked so hard on the DeLaCerda House during the final months of his life — to help support homeless people living with HIV and AIDS, people who were often homeless because they had lost jobs and had no one left who was willing to take them in.

Lorney and Hattie Dussliere demonstrated the best of human nature during a personal crisis; the protective qualities of parents who understand that love is unconditional.

Robb’s favorite performer was Elton John. As Robb approached death, I began looking for a way to pay tribute to his parents. I listened a lot to Elton John’s great album, “The One.” On that album is “The Last Song.” One day, as I was listening to the CD at home, the lyrics of “The Last Song” became very clear. It was about the love of a father for his AIDS-stricken son.

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A father in pain, still able to muster a smile, demonstrating incredible love and support to a son. 

This video instantly sprang into my mind, almost fully created. I sat down in my home and cried like a baby. I was doing that more and more over Robb, it seemed.

Even 20 years later, as this blog post is being written, parents still abandon their HIV-positive children. This tribute to Lorney Dussliere is still relevant.

After Robb passed away, Elton John came to perform a concert in the Quad Cities. Lorney and Hattie managed to get a VHS tape of “Robb’s Life” to him. During the concert, as they sat in the crowd, Elton John performed “The Last Song” and dedicated it to the Dussliere family.

I invite you to stop for a moment, listen to the lyrics, and you will understand why Robb’s parents have my undying respect and love.

If you would like to help keep Robb’s legacy alive, please donate — even a few dollars — to the DeLaCerda House. Go to their web page and click on the “Donate” button at the top of the screen.

Robb’s Life Chapter 39 -A CT Scan and Suspicions of Wasting Syndrome

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Robb suspects wasting syndrome, but gets a CT scan to rule out Kaposi’s.

In early March, 1996, Robb suspected he had wasting syndrome, which happens when the body begins shutting down. But to rule out Kaposi’s Sarcoma, a type of cancer that is common in AIDS patients, he went to Genesis Medical Center for a CT scan.

Robb had been having trouble breathing, especially while lying down. He looked very thin and was continuing to lose weight, but he maintained a realistic perspective. He wanted to know exactly what was happening, staring good and bad news in the eye without blinking. He knew so much about AIDS that he seemed to view his own illness in a clinical way.

As the end approached, Robb was teaching me about courage in a way that I may not have thought deeply about at the time, but as the years have passed, I have been amazed at how calm and centered he remained through it all.

If you would like to keep Robb’s legacy alive and support men and women who are homeless while fighting HIV and AIDS, please go to the DeLaCerda House’s website — at www.delacerdahouseinc.org — and click the Donate button.

Robb’s Life Chapter 38 -A Checkup at the Doctor’s Office

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Robb made everyone laugh, and he thought the world of nurse Sandee Millage.

By the end of February 1996, Robb had lost six pounds in a little over a week, so he went to Dr. Katz’ office. Dr. Katz wasn’t in, but his nurse Sandee Millage was there to see him.

Robb’s fatigue was worse and he was visibly going downhill. His mother, Hattie drove him to the doctor’s office at Genesis Medical Center in Davenport, across the river from his house in Rock Island, Illinois.

Despite feeling badly, the opening shot in this story still makes me smile. I was carrying the heavy camera gear and walking backward down the hall, so Robb began clowning around, motioning people behind me to look out. I remember squinting with one eye through the viewfinder and trying not to laugh.

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The twinkle in Robb’s eyes was replaced with concern.

Robb was able to smile and joke a little bit during his checkup, but there is one moment in particular, when he looks up at Sandee when she takes a blood sample, that the illness is mirrored in his eyes. The haunting “sick” look is so different than the twinkle he had in his eyes 10 months earlier, when the series began.

 

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

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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.

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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.
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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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

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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

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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.