AIDS quilt: remembering Williams alums’ lives

This past weekend the AIDS quilt visited Williams. Intended to honor those who have died in the Williams Community, and deeply moving in its efforts, the quilt does not tell the personal stories of those who have perished in our own community. Here are two such stories, of two men from the class of ’81 who were members of the Williams family. Their tragedy brings the AIDS crisis closer to home for many of us.

Bill Holt ’81

Bill Holt and Phil Darrow had a promise. Close friends since the first grade in Winnetka, Illinois, the two undertook a special Winter Study project while in their junior year at Williams. Along with Steve Colt ’81 and Mike Behrman ’80, and sponsored by Professor Sheafe Satterthwaite, Bill and Phil bicycled 2600 miles across the Southern states, from Jacksonville, Florida to San Diego, California. It was Bill’s idea to turn the fun Winter Study Project into a fund-raiser, soliciting sponsors to pledge per mile, raising $3,000 for the famine-relief group Oxfam. Such a gesture was characteristic of Bill; a leader who was extremely motivated, he always mobilized people to positively serve their community. Bill and Phil vowed that they would repeat the journey before they turned 40.

Bill died before he could fulfill the pact. So Phil repeated the trip for him. Urged on by his wife Robin, in 1996 Phil rode 3,350 miles across the country, and was inspired by his late friend to turn the vacation opportunity into a fund-raiser. With the help of the class of 1981 in the year of their 15th reunion, Phil raised $43,000 for a clinic in Bill’s name, the Bill Holt Infectious Disease Clinic at Phoenix Children’s Hospital, described by the Arizona Republic as the “only pediatric HIV/AIDS program in the state.”

It was exactly the kind of tribute Bill would have wanted. Before falling victim to AIDS, Bill lived a very full and active (although painfully short) life largely dedicated to helping others. A graduate and student leader at both New Trier High School (where he was Council President) and Williams College, Bill was extremely intelligent, creative and close to all he met.

He organized Olympic events at his high school and was a social fixture at Dodd house. In the words of Phil, he was “an instigator of fun” and “an outward, community-oriented-person.”

After graduating from Williams with a degree in Political Science, Bill went on to earn an MBA and launch a successful Chicago health care consulting practice with his friend Michael Sacks that now employs over 100 people. He was extremely devoted to his career and volunteered often with community groups like Open Door, even earning the distinction of Volunteer of the Year. After learning he was HIV-positive, Bill cofounded Open Hand Chicago, a group that delivers meals to house-bound AIDS victims. Phil feels that Bill’s work with Open Hand is a strong statement about his attitude: he fought back, but in a non-militant, productive way. Bill was never “in-your-face,” instead he quietly labored to help others better understand the gay community.

He battled his illness with equal vigor. Bill lived more than a decade with AIDS and stayed active until he was incapacitated, maintaining a positive spirit until the end. Despite his illness, Bill planned to hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon with Phil.

Just before the trip, his health declined drastically and he died on June 28, 1993. Before he died Phil told him of the plans for a clinic in his name.

Even after his death, Bill continued to help others. A lifelong lover of the outdoors who delighted in retreating to his family’s cabin in Wyoming, Bill left money in his will to build a bridge near the Wyoming cabin, as well as to the clinic that would bear his name and to Phil’s children (Bill was Phil’s son’s godfather).

Bill’s death is a terrible tragedy not just to his parents, two sisters, and close friend Phil, but also to everyone who knew him and to the community at large. His parents stress that Bill loved Williams and felt very close to the tight-knit community.

The feeling was no doubt mutual and he made Williams very proud.

Greg Witcher ’81

On the last night of his life, Greg received an unexpected visitor, an old friend from Williams. Greg chatted jovially with the friend (despite his voice being reduced to a whisper) until well past midnight, keeping him and the others who had gathered around his deathbed laughing up to the end. He died in his sleep “in dignity and in peace,” as the Williams Alumni Review wrote. It was a tranquil end to an unquiet life full of activity, but also hardship.

Greg was a gifted person born into the inner city of Washington D.C. As a black student who succeeded in a mostly-white school (he was bused to a better neighborhood), he constantly tried to reconcile the two worlds. He earned a scholarship to Exeter and matriculated at Williams in 1976, where he would be a Contract Major in Chinese and African Studies. At first, he found Williams difficult and left after a year to attend George Washington University and intern for the Washington Post (where he wrote a front page article on the 10 year anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, launching a successful career in journalism), however he returned to Williams to win the Henry Rutgers Conger Memorial Literary Prize for best prose or poetry piece in a college literary magazine, and served as political coordinator of the Black Student Union.

After graduating, Greg made a name for himself in journalism, leaving the profession only when his illness required it. He worked hard and furiously to educate Williams alumni that AIDS was affecting their community. “People should take pause to realize that these are real people who are dying, “ Greg implored, “and they’re people who have made real contributions both to the Williams community and professionally.” He was frustrated that this was a little-acknowledged fact, and as most alumni AIDS deaths at the time were those of gay men, their families concealed such knowledge from the Alumni Obituary notices. The friend who stayed with Greg on the last night of his life was shocked to learn that his own J.A. had died of AIDS and the family had withheld the information. Greg was angry towards the end of his life because of this lack of acknowledgment and his own failing health, which seemed all the more cruel in the face of so many healthy and energetic visitors.

Though he initially resented the good health of his friends, he came to relish their presence. It is through them, his mother Rita and his three sisters and two brothers that his message lives on; a message very similar to Bill Holt’s. As relayed by his friend, Andrew Levin ’83, Greg wanted people to “reach out, communicate— it’s worth it.”

Special thanks to James Kolesar, Walter and Elizabeth Holt and Phil Darrow ’81.