His name is Dr. Ronn Rucker, PhD. And once you encounter this likable chap, you won’t likely forget him. I’m proud to call him a fellow Buckeye, a native son of Ohio! Ronn, a clinical sociologist, along with Dr. Evelyn Hess and Michael Richey, in collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, set up the first test site in Cincinnati in January 1985. It became the model for other sites worldwide. At the time, Dr. Rucker was a Psychiatric Case Manager with the Cincinnati Health Department (CHD).
Ronn attended the first national meeting on AIDS that was held in New York City. Since then he has participated in many International AIDS Conferences. He also began a Buddy Program (volunteers matched with PWAs) that became AIDS Volunteer of Cincinnati. Ronn designed an HIV testing model for GM in Detroit and was even a consultant to the Ministry of Health in the Old Soviet Union.
Dr. Rucker was a thirty-six-year veteran of the department when he retired in 2005. For his work, the Cincinnati mayor proclaimed October 10 as “Ronn Rucker Day.”
Today he’s in private practice, working primarily on substance abuse issues with adolescents who are referred to him by schools and the courts. He also is an educator and a lecturer.
Ron is still a resident of “Cincy”—as us Ohio folk refer to the Queen City—with his life partners Ruth
and Les (fourteen years together with Les), six Borzoi, aka Russian Wolf Hounds, and a cat. Ronn also has two sons and five grandchildren.
Ronn and I share another bond: a committed fan of The Sound of Music—like me, his fave film! I met the real Maria von Trapp at her Trapp Family Lodge in Vermont when I was a teen. What a thrill! I have her signed photo framed right here by my desktop. Ronn met Ms. Trapp, as well, when she spoke at his alma mater, Otterbein College, where he received his bachelor’s in sociology.
After speaking at a breakfast seminar at Caracole, an organization that provides affordable housing to HIV and AIDS clients, Dr. Rucker and I sit on his three-acre backyard, marveling at the exquisite summer day.
Ruby Comer: [As I settle into my contour lounger, I roar] What’s up, Doc?! Oh, geez, did I just say that?! [I bow my head and toss it back and forth.] It’s so lovely to be with you, Ronn. How did you come by two n’s in your name?
Ronn Rucker: Hated being called Ronnie.
How many friends have you lost to this terrible disease?
Early on, my address book of friends emptied every year and as new friends were added they then joined the dead ones in large numbers. I stopped counting after fifteen.
Tell me about the anonymous HIV testing site.
Back then, people feared job loss and other forms of discrimination. So Michael [Richey] and I decided we should offer an anonymous test. We set out holding a clinic in the evening where no names were taken and people received a number, which was associated with their blood test. It took a week until the results could be determined. People with original positives then had a second test on the same specimen to determine if it was specifically HIV. It was a horrible long week.
Alas, I recall those days all too well. What did you specifically do?
It was my job to explain the process to the men and then give them their results. People began coming in huge numbers and those were days when I told seven or more people they were positive and then watched them dissolve in front of me. It was a death sentence. A little of me dissolved with each one and I became very depressed. I continued working with the men because I cared so much about them. They sensed this.
Compassion indeed permeates your aura. You counseled many patients with AIDS. Does one particular client call to mind?
Jamie was my “Buddy.” He had been a dedicated Special Ed high school teacher and was involved in a long-term relationship. The media was begging to talk with an AIDS patient and USA Today, Cincinnati Magazine, The Sally Jesse Raphael Show, and others approached Jamie. He agreed to be the AIDS Volunteer of Cincinnati public representative. Jamie was eloquent when talking about his illness and wanted me present with him when he went on these media calls.
Sally Jesse Raphael [A&U, March 2000], whose show was one of the first national TV shows to have an HIV/AIDS guest, invited Jamie on her show. She hosted us in luxury and we had a great time. Jamie and I became very close. I visited his home twice a week as his “buddy.” I was with him when he died at Hospice of Cincinnati. His lover had just left the room for a short break. I still remember the nurse holding my hand and saying, “He’s dying”—as he took his last breath. It was awful…. [Ronn pauses, glancing out at the calming Ohio River.]
[I scoot my chair more under the shade of the bamboo and white pine trees. No sun for this flawless lily-white face!] Looking back from today, what’s your opinion of the epidemic?
Changes came after Rock Hudson’s death. Now, HIV/AIDS seems forgotten and hidden under a blanket. A new group of young people is getting infected, but at least now it’s not a death sentence.
What revs you to lend a hand?
I feel it’s important for me to try and change the world. Quakers and Mahatma Gandhi were my greatest influences.
Oh! And tell me about that photograph of you leaning over James Dean’s tombstone on your Facebook page.
James Dean meant a lot to me as a person who emerged for just a moment in time and became a lasting influence on acting. He’s special to me in many ways.
Do you have any other heroes in the entertainment field?
[He responds instantly.] Joshua Bell and Joan Baez. I’ve met both of them. I gave Joan an amber necklace from Russia and she wore it at a performance. I have a miniature violin Joshua signed for me.
How touching, Ronn. How in the world did it come about that you became a consultant to the USSR Ministry of Health?
I had attended numerous International AIDS Conferences to present papers about HIV testing and later on training health workers to work with AIDS patients. So, I was meeting people from all over the world and then I was asked to be part of a Presidential Delegation. Bush, the first, whom I did not support, appointed me. There were about fifteen of us who were leading figures in our various disciplines: health, science, government, NASA, education, and more.
It turned out that we arrived in Moscow just when Russia was being turned upside down politically. I met many top-level people and this included people who later asked me to return to train their health-care people about AIDS. I went over about twelve times in two years and I found it immensely wonderful.
I loved Russian culture and art. I loved the Moscow flea market and started taking Barbie Dolls to the people who could not get them. I would trade these for Matryoshka, lacquer boxes, amber, and military memorabilia.
I’m dying to visit Russia, but with “Dictator” Putin, I think I’ll wait until he’s out of office. [Suddenly I shout.] Ronn Rucker, you are a role model! Whom do you consider a hero in the AIDS epidemic?
Thank you, Ruby. Cleve Jones [A&U, October 2008] is a hero—and my friend. The AIDS Quilt accomplished miracles and it grew and grew. He and I worked as volunteers on the very first March on Washington for LGBT rights, which included organizing meetings all over the USA. [He pauses.] The film Milk truly captured Cleve’s spirit.
Ruby Comer is an independent journalist from the Midwest who is happy to call Hollywood her home away from home. Reach her by e-mail at [email protected].