This story was originally broadcast on December 1, 2019. In June 2020 this report by correspondent Seth Doane, producer Dustin Stephens and editor Steven Tyler received an Excellence in Journalism Award from NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ Journalists.
It was a most unusual inheritance: Ruth Coker Burks said she was given 262 plots in a historic cemetery, after a family feud pitted her mother against her uncle: "My mother got in a huge argument with her brother when I was 10, and bought all the remaining spaces in the family cemetery so he and his family couldn't be buried with the rest of us. That was the meanest thing she could think to settle the score.
"What am I gonna do with a cemetery? You know, a nice ring or watch, but not a cemetery!"
"But it would wind up that you would need a cemetery," said correspondent Seth Doane.
"Who would have ever thought?"
The plots sat mostly unused until the AIDS crisis hit Hot Springs, Arkansas. "Death and I got to be old friends," she said.
Coker Burks – a self-described "straight church-lady" – remembers when the disease was referred to as the "gay cancer."
In the early 1980s health officials were declaring an epidemic of an illness that claimed more victims than toxic shock and legionnaire's disease combined, but which was a mystery to most of the country. Scientists scrambled to learn more. By 1984, researchers identified that the HIV virus, as it would come to be known, caused AIDS. By 1985, there were more than 20,000 reported AIDS cases worldwide.
"See, people think that the AIDS epidemic happened in San Francisco, or it happened in New York, it didn't happen in the center of the country. But it did," said Coker Burks.
And as fear swirled, Coker Burks, then in her mid-20s, found herself face-to-face with the disease while visiting a friend at an Arkansas hospital. She'd noticed a room no one was entering. An AIDS patient was inside: "He was so frail and so pale and so near death. And he weighed less than 100 pounds. And you couldn't really tell him from the sheets on the bed."
What happened next was dramatized in a short film, titled "Ruth," when the patient (known as Jimmy) asked to speak with his mother. Coker Burks informed a nurse, who told her:
Nurse: "Did you go into that room? Have you lost your mind? Do you know what's happening?"
Ruth: "I'd like his mother's phone number. He wants his mother."
Nurse: "Honey, his mother is not coming. He's been in that room for six weeks and nobody is coming."
But Coker Burns returned to Jimmy's room, and says she sat with him for the next 13 hours.
Doane asked, "What made you stay with him until he passed away?"
"He needed me," she replied. "His mother had already abandoned him."
Nobody wanted his remains, so she says she paid for his cremation, and then put his ashes in a cookie jar and brought them up to that cemetery. She thinks she ended up helping maybe hundreds with AIDS: mostly men, many abandoned by families and churches. "It sounds like it wasn't always 'Love thy neighbor,'" said Doane.
"No, it wasn't."
Doane asked, "After helping Jimmy, what made you think, 'I'm gonna help others'?"
"Well, I didn't; they just kept coming," Coker Burks said. "I couldn't turn anybody down. There was no one else to take care of them."
"There were just no other options?"
"There was none. The KKK burned crosses in my yard three different times."
"You must have felt threatened?"
"No," she said. "I had a killer on my hands. I was dealing with AIDS. Why was I gonna be afraid of somebody burning a cross in my yard?"
Coker Burks became a one-woman AIDS help center: driving patients to appointments, trying to find doctors and drugs, or filling out death certificates.
As Paul Wineland told Doane, "Here, we were pretty much left on our own. I had Ruth, and that was about it."
He'd met Coker Burks at work: "I managed a bar, and she came in one night and was trying to raise some funds to bury someone that had died of AIDS."
Wineland said they'd spin-up drag show fundraisers to support Coker Burks' work. One of the performers was his own partner of ten years, Billy (stage name Marilyn Morrell).
"I thought it was really great the things that she was doing for people," said Wineland. "And then it turned out that I needed her, 'cause of Billy, you know?"
Billy was diagnosed with AIDS. Before dying, he left Ruth his favorite red dress.
"Just to know that someone cares for you can prolong your time," said Wineland.
One of those buried at the cemetery is Janie Neuwirth's younger brother, Joe Ross. She told Coker Burks, "You have just been our savior angel; you just melted all the fear and all the panic and anxiety."
Neuwirth and her family had little money, and were struggling in those final days of her brother's life, until a nun gave her Coker Burks' number: "She did everything for us, and all we had to do was come out here and pick a spot. She was a saint."
When asked how many people were buried there, Coker Burks replied, "There are over 40 here." She admits her memories are a little fuzzy, and maybe that's not so bad. "Back then it was just incomprehensible that this would go on and on and on, but it did," she said.
She says she found solace out on the waters of Arkansas' Lake Hamilton. "No one was dying on the lake," she said. "No one was sick on the lake. You could catch a fish and throw him back in and he'd swim away to live another day. And it wasn't that way on dry land."
Ruth Coker Burks took on an informal advisory role on AIDS in the Clinton administration, and would eventually be recognized for her work, heralded as "Cemetery Angel" and "St. Ruth."
In 2010 she had a stroke, which in part she blames on the stress of that era. She has one biological daughter, but during that crisis she became a mother, of sorts, to countless sons. "I didn't have the honor of giving birth to them, but I had the honor of being with them in the moment that they needed somebody the most. And I would take them in my arms and I would carry them across the river of death, and there would be on the other side waiting all of the people who loved them and didn't judge them.
"And I had that honor of handing them back to their friends and to God."
"They were lucky to have you," said Doane.
"I was lucky to have them," she replied.
For more info:
- Historic Files Cemetery, Hot Springs, Ark.
Story produced by Dustin Stephens. Editor: Steven Tyler.