I knew him for only a few hours, but his strength inspires me to this very day
He was a slight man, maybe 5'6", with a thin beard and short dyed hair. He took awkward steps when he walked, and his skin was tightly wrapped around his bones, as though only a step away from resembling a Holocaust victim. He was clearly in great physical pain. He strained to sit and stand. His movements were vastly slower than his years would suggest. Yes, 52 year old Loras Goedken was dying. It was only a matter of time before the stigmatized infection which had invaded his body since November 1985, would claim his life, and the lives of so many he loved.
I had been dispatched that day in 1996, working as a reporter for KTRK TV, ABC 13 in Houston. I was there to meet the man who was slated to carry the olympic torch which was coming through town en route to the Olympic games. Despite the strain on his ravaged body, Loras was an accomodating host when we arrive at his home. His voice was full of life, and he showed us his pride and joy, a vintage 70's era Pontiac GTO restored to perfection and gleaming in his garage with an impeccable fire engine red paint job.
"This man is going to run through Houston with the Olympic torch?", I asked myself when I met him. "This guy can barely walk."
The 11 children born to Mary and Vince Goedken grew up in Monticello Iowa, 7 boys and 4 sisters. They were typical in most ever way, raised with a strong spiritual conscience, a profound work ethic, and an unrelenting notion of family. But they weren't exactly typical. Loras and 5 of his brothers were hemophiliacs. As they grew, their brother Steve, the only one not to suffer from the disease, remembers his young brothers moaning in pain and begging to have their joints and hair messaged as they all tried to sleep at night. They often buried their heads in their pillows, hoping to dampen the isolated and tortuous cries that would spring from their lips. But their battered and bruised spirits never died, and the boys suffered in a dignified privacy which often led to frequent trips to the hospital, even occasionally during Christmas.
In the early 1970's, concentrated blood clotting agents gave the boys new hope. Loras remembered taking 253 infusions of of Factor VIII between 1980 and 1990, Each one, he recalled, represented 20-thousand different blood donors. For the hemophiliac Goedken boys, injections were a small price to pay in exchange for their new lives. They grew. They worked. Some moved away, But by the early 1980's, something was clearly happening. Loras' brother Ernie did not look good at Vince and Mary's 50th wedding anniversary. Then brother Carl began looking gaunt as well.
The new plague called "AIDS" seemed miles away from the cornfields and crossroads of Iowa. But it had seeped into the soil of the Goedken family tree. 6 of the 7 boys, including Loras, had been infected through tainted blood. Earnie was the first to succomb in 1987. Two months later, Clayton Goedken was born to Loras' brother Dennis and his wife Karen. Both were HIV positive by now. Little Clayton lived long enough to make the trip back home from Texas to Iowa where Dennis and Karen cared and clung to their little boy with all the ferocity of Grizzly bear guarding her cubs. Clayton died two months later, at the age of 4 months.
The day Clayton died, the Goedkens learned that Loras's brother Carl had torched his own house, the result of AIDS-induced dementia. He had been admitted to a psychiatric hospital. Dennis died in October of 1989. Upon leaving the bedroom where Dennis' body lay, brother JJ said, "Well guys, I'm next." He was wrong.
Loras had inadvertently infected his wife Jan. By the Spring of 1990, she was in the hospital. But Loras made good on the promise he'd made to her. He brought the love of his life home to die. On April 18th, after tortuous suffering, he quietly whispered in her ear that she didn't have to fight anymore, that she could finally give up. She died the next day.
In 1991, Dennis' wife died in Texas. Back in Iowa JJ was falling apart. JJ died in August of the same year, the same day of his wife Linda's birthday.
Interviewing Loras Goedken that day for the evening's news was a complete joy. I was aware of his family history, and I knew that his time was running thin. But as we spoke about the Olympic torch, his excitement came out like fire from a volcano. He had planned what to wear and made sure his friends would be gathered along the route. We talked about AIDS, his wife, his brothers who had passed and his current health. At the time, he'd been on a variety of talk shows to tell his story, among them the Oprah Winfrey Show. He was very open about what had happened, and I began feeling those odd chills down my neck when I began to recognize his strength and character. He was a happy man. And I didn't know at the time if he'd simply made peace with his fate, or was generally a man who had faced the realities which had claimed the lives of so many of his family members. Medical experts I spoke with could not remember another family so singularly devestated by the HIV virus. Loras was the bravest man I've ever known. We chatted for about an hour. I had to leave in order to put his story together for the 5pm newscast. But not before Loras rolled out his GTO, and burned the tires for me as he left his home.
That night at 5:12 pm, I was in our television station's helicopter, looking down at the torch route. As if God had written the script, I saw Loras grab the torch just as I introduced my story about his life, and the helicopter camera captured what was unfolding below. Loras Goedken was running. He ran the entire leg of his time, before handing the torch off to someone else. This man who earlier that day had problems just standing, had actually run the course. I wanted to cry, but I was on live TV. I just remember commenting about appreciating the moment, and the honor with which we all probably felt by watching what was unfolding before our viewers' very eyes. Loras had channelled his body to do what it wasn't supposed to do through sheer will and determination, pride and focus, dignity and fealressness.
A year later, I got a call from Loras' son. He told me that his dad had mentioned my name, and asked if I was interested in purchasing that beautiful Pontiac GTO. Loras Goedken was gone, the last of six brothers to die of AIDS.
About the author
Mark, what a beautiful, inspiring, story of strength and faith in the eye of adversity! Great Job! Ir really enjoyed reading it.
Compelling read, powerfully written. Says so much about how we deal with adversity reveals our character. Lora's was strong.
Wow!! This is unbelievable!! If you ever think you have problems read this story again and again!! What an inspiration. It's so sad that people have to suffer so much to inspire us but thankfully, because of people like you, his story will live on and continue to inspire. What a privilege to meet this wonderful human being.
By the way. Did you buy the car?
This story shook me to my bones, again. Promise keepers, note takers, legacy writers, historians...what would we be without them? What would we know without them? What would we remember without them?
Thank you for telling this unbelievable tale.