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PASSAGES: HIV/AIDS activist Rydwels remembered Oct. 27
by Matt Simonette
2019-10-25

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The ashes of longtime HIV/AIDS activist Bill Rydwels, who passed away Oct. 3, were scattered from Belmont Rocks at 11 a.m. the morning of Sunday, Oct. 27.

Rydwels, 87, who was diagnosed with HIV in 1985, was an early participant with Test Positive Aware Network ( TPAN ) and was long active in Services & Advocacy for LGBT Elders ( SAGE ), and was especially committed to working on behalf of rights for seniors with HIV/AIDS.

Rydwels's friend Lisa Congleton knew him since the '80s, when both regularly attended TPA meetings.

"Bill was one of those guys who was always at the TPA meetings, twice a week, as was I," Congleton recalled. " … Bill went to everything, and Bill parlayed that knowledge" into his other activities.

"From the time we started with 19 people [in June 1987], we ended up, in a few months, with over 200 people," recalled Rydwels in a 2017 TPAN promotional video.

As Congleton cleaned out Rydwels's personal effects, she was consistently surprised by items that pointed to his community commitment.

"He just didn't stop when it came to being involved, and that didn't stop at the international level either," she added.

"Bill was one of the first people I met when I started attending TPAN support groups in 1990," said Positively Aware Editor-in-Chief Jeff Berry in a Facebook post shortly after his death. "Bill always had a big smile, an open heart, and a generous spirit. His strength and resilience over the years was, and will always be, an inspiration to others."

Berry later told Windy City Times about the myriad contributions of time and energy Rydels made to TPAN over the years, including leading a support group for older persons living with HIV/AIDS, and helping to send out the new issues of Positively Aware.

"He was a big part of the organization over the years—and a big part of its success," Berry said. "He was happy to lend his support where he could."

In 2013, Rydwels told Windy City Times that older persons with HIV were "the pariah [years ago], but one of the great things to come out of TPA was that I wasn't the pariah any more than any other sick person. Slowly, over time, people began to see us and respect us."

NBC News included Rydwels in a 2011 profile of persons who were aging and living with HIV. He said that he never celebrated his birthday anymore. His partner of 17 years passed away on that day in 1985. When Rydwels himself was diagnosed with HIV, he recalled in the TPAN video, he was told he would probably live only another 18-24 months. He lived another 34 years.

Rydwels achieved numerous accolades for his work, especially his work on behalf of seniors. In 2001, he was inducted into the Chicago Senior Citizens Hall of Fame. In a letter to Rydwels, then-Mayor Richard M. Daley said, "This is a special achievement of which you should be quite proud. As a senior citizen, you are one of Chicago's most valuable resources, and you provide your fellow citizens with invaluable knowledge, experience and wisdom. … Your fine efforts have helped make Chicago a finer place for all."

Congleton remembered Rydwels as being especially thoughtful about his prayers. Indeed, in one interview, Rydwels said that he prayed for about 70 people daily.

"He was always keeping people in his prayers and in his thoughts," Congleton said. "He was very, very generous. There were times when I would ask him about someone, and he would say, 'I'll tell you about them tomorrow after I pray for for them tonight.' It became [routine]—his point was, 'I can't remember them in this context, but I can remember their name when I pray for them, because I have it written down for if I forget.' It really struck me."

Berry said that Rydwels recently brought in to the TPAN offices a hat that Rydwels had worn to the 1992 March on Washington. It was inscribed with the names of friends Rydwels had lost to AIDS.

"I have that here in my office, and I look at that every day and think of Bill," Berry said.

Rydwels's ashes will be scattered just south of the Belmont Harbor inlet/entryway at 11 a.m. on Oct. 27. There is paid parking on the South end of Belmont Harbor.


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