Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Leaving while the Band Plays On....

It was in late 1982, sitting in my tiny apartment when the phone rang. It was the first time I heard anything about a new unknown afflication that was sickening Gay men. I was 25 and living with my boyfriend Steve in Columbus, Ohio, just blocks south of the OSU campus. I was the Executive Director of the Stonewall Union, Central Ohio's gay lesbian rights organization and we were fighting for a human rights ordinance in Columbus, and I was organizing the GLBT community across the city.

They had no name for the malady that was killng homosexuals, hemophiliacs, hatian immigrants, and heroin addicts in the big coastal cities like New York, Miami, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Like millions of other Americans, I dismissed the issue as something that couldn't be true or would just go away. Soon, at least among the affected groups, we would learn the harsh truth.

I would soon be seduced to move to Detroit, where I became the new Executive Director of the Michigan Organization for Human Rights (MOHR). The Stonewall group had become very successful, well known, and was putting on giant state-wide gay pride parades. MOHR hired me to Michigan and plopped me down in Palmer Park, where I was told the Gay community was centered.

I had no choice but to become well versed in the latest information and updates on GRID, or gay related immunodeficiency disease, later named AIDS. By 1986, we were developing safe sex workshops that we took on the road, travelling to every major city and university in Michigan. MOHR got the first state funds allocated to AIDS, helping fund the creation of the Special Office on AIDS Prevention, later named HAPIS. We created the first prevention posters (the LIfeguard campaign) and began distributing condoms by the tens of thousands.

MOHR went through some board dysfunction, as groups sometime do, and I moved over to the Special Office on AIDS Prevention at the Michigan Department of Community Health in 1987 where I was to work and advise for fifteen years. I also founded MAPP in the summer of 1988, sitting around a swimming pool - with Richard Villaire and two other associates.

I lost a lot of friends and associates to AIDS. I stopped counting when the number reached 44, about a decade ago.

As I finally leave the HIV/AIDS arena, moving on to what will become my third career, I realize what a truly inspiring and spirited occupation I had the pleasure in which to create and participate. For twenty-two years, I got to travel the state and large swaths of the country, meeting many caring and creative people. I got to teach safer sex and sexuality in general to tens of thousands of college and high school students. I had the pleasure of hiring and working with dozens of the most honest, hard-working, and dedicated people at the Midwest AIDS Prevention Project (MAPP). And during this time I helped raise - through government agencies, grants, and fundraising events, in excess of $12 million for the fight against HIV/AIDS.

It has gotten tougher lately,as bureaucracies strangle creativity, funding becomes more scarce, and new crises develop, Young people are still denied real life health and sex education. The schools still bow to homophobia and fear. Government institutionalizes the epidemic and stifles
grass roots community efforts with layers of civil service employees, unending reports and RFP's. But each year,new young people rise to the challenge and become the next generation of soldiers fighting the scourge that is the world-wide AIDS pandemic.

As I make room for the next generation and prepare to move into full-time political work, local government policiy, and other consulting, I can look back with satisfaction and know that we did manage to reduce the numbers, alleviate the suffering, and comfort those who lost so much. My favorite story is from a couple of years ago. A man approached me in a club in Flint, Michigan. He appeared to be in his late 30's or early 40's. And he said to me..."You saved my life. I heard you speak when I was 18 and a college student, you taught us about safe sex and I always followed what you said."

Over the years, I was picketed by homophobes in Jackson and Ferndale. I stayed in inumerable hotel rooms around the state, and sat through many long meetings and presentations. I was even attacked in the early 90's by a disgruntled bath house owner upset with my lobbying against unregulated drug and sex activity in some of the Detroit baths. I wouldn't trade any of those experiences. My only regret is that today young gay men and boys, some as young as 17, are still at high risk for HIV infection. Because of those young men and others, I will always support the work that someday will make that cease to happen. The mission remains.

Friday, August 13, 2010

DreamCruise Founder is Lost This Week.

Nelson House
Woodward Dream Cruise founder passes away
By Jeremy Selweski
C & G Staff Writer

FERNDALE — The man who founded the Woodward Dream Cruise will not be around to see his creation reach its 16th birthday.

Nelson House passed away on Aug. 12 following an eight-month battle with colon cancer. He was 69.

Ferndale Mayor Craig Covey was saddened when he heard the news. “I think it’s important to acknowledge the tremendous impact of what Nelson House gave to metro Detroit,” he said. “Over 1 million people come out to Woodward every year all because of an idea he had 16 years ago.”

House, a resident of Ferndale for the past 30 years, gave rise to the automotive phenomenon almost by accident: In 1994, he was inspired to create an event to raise funds for a children’s soccer field in Ferndale. Remembering the summer nights during the 1950s and 1960s when young people would go cruising on Woodward Avenue to show off their cars, he sought to host a classic car show to generate the $80,000 needed for the field.

The following summer, House and a group of volunteers put their plan into action, launching the event on Aug. 19, 1995. House had also expanded his idea from a stationary show by encouraging the classic car owners to make their way over to Woodward and cruise like the days of old, thus giving birth to the Dream Cruise concept. House and his colleagues initially expected 30,000 to 40,000 car lovers to take part in the fundraiser and were surprised when about 250,000 people showed up for the event.

Today, the Woodward Dream Cruise stands as the world’s largest one-day auto event, attracting more than 1 million spectators each August and stretching across 16 miles and nine communities from Ferndale to Pontiac. The soccer field that House and his friends built still stands behind Webb Elementary School, near Martin Road Park.

When Covey learned recently that House was in failing health, he contacted the city and suggested that they do something in his honor. On Aug. 9, the Ferndale City Council passed a resolution dedicating the 2010 Woodward Dream Cruise to House and acknowledging his contributions to the people of metro Detroit.

“I feel very fortunate that we were able to formally recognize Nelson’s concept before he died,” Covey said. “In the end, I think our city and our region are better off because of him and his efforts.”

According to the resolution passed by council, “Mr. House’s inspiration to help the youth in our community has turned into a showcase event that promotes our city as well as others along Woodward Avenue. When it is said that Ferndale is ‘where the dream began,’ it must be stressed that Nelson House is the man who dreamed it.”

At the Aug. 9 meeting, House’s son, Sean, thanked the council for their kind gesture and suggested that the city help him in creating a memorial at the soccer field in his father’s honor. Covey said that the city was open to that possibility and would be willing to work with him on it.

Bob Milliron, one of House’s longtime friends as well as a Dream Cruise vendor and local car show organizer, also supports the idea of a tribute to House. However, the 56-year-old Madison Heights resident favors placing it in a central location with much greater traffic: right at Nine Mile Road and Woodward Avenue, at the heart of the Dream Cruise in Ferndale.

“I think it should be in a spot where thousands of people are going to drive by and see it every day,” Milliron said in a subsequent interview. “That’s the recognition Nelson really deserves. I’ve thought for years that he wasn’t getting his proper due. He created the cruise, it was his baby, and you can never take that away from him.”

House had a complex history with the Dream Cruise, however. According to Milliron, by the late 1990s, House had become disenchanted with how massive and commercialized the cruise had become and longed to bring it back to its charitable roots. For a couple years, he even organized a separate classic car show at the Michigan State Fairgrounds. After that event fizzled out, House got in the habit of leaving town every year during the weekend of the cruise.

But everything came full circle last year when he accepted an offer from the city of Ferndale to serve as grand marshal at the annual Dream Cruise kickoff event at Nine Mile and Woodward. Sean House suggested that his father may have finally accepted how the cruise had evolved, but he also noted that the event itself may have become too big for the modest man who created it.

“My dad was just a very humble person,” he said. “He never wanted any money or recognition for what he did. His whole focus has always been about raising funds for the charities and helping people out. He always tried to focus on the positive aspects of everything he did.”

House is survived by his wife, Venetta; his two sons, Sean and Derek; his daughter, Sandra Nieman; and his four grandchildren.

House’s viewing is open to the public and will be held from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Aug. 14 and from 2 p.m. to 9 p.m. Aug. 15 at the Spaulding & Curtin Funeral Home, 500 W. Nine Mile Road, in Ferndale. A final public viewing will be held at 9:30 a.m. Aug. 16 at St. James Catholic Church, 241 Pearson St., in Ferndale, followed by a funeral service at 10 a.m.

You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Selweski at jselweski@candgnews.com or at (586) 218-5004.