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AIDS Memorial Quilt creator Cleve Jones honored with lifetime achievement award

AIDS Memorial Quilt creator Cleve Jones honored with lifetime achievement award
AIDS Memorial Quilt creator Cleve Jones honored with lifetime achievement award 04:05

SAN FRANCISCO -- At a World AIDS Day event Wednesday evening, iconic HIV activist Cleve Jones was honored with the National AIDS Memorial Lifetime of Commitment Award.  

It was recognition of Jones' work as the creator of the AIDS Memorial Quilt which helped change the course of the deadly disease.

Sitting in the garden of his Guerneville home, Cleve Jones said his greatest achievement is probably just being alive.  At age 17, he was a scared, lonely kid, planning his own suicide.

"And then I read about gay liberation in Life magazine, and I flushed the pills I'd been hoarding down the toilet and hitchhiked to San Francisco," said Jones.

Living in the Castro District in the late 1970's the street kid became a protégé of Supervisor Harvey Milk, the state's first openly gay elected official. But then AIDS began its deadly attack on the gay community.  

As the nation turned a blind eye to the epidemic, Jones' fear turned to rage.  On the night Milk was murdered, he led a defiant march to the Federal Building where protestors plastered it with the names of those who had died.

"And as I looked at that patchwork of names up on the Federal Building wall, I thought to myself it looked like some kind of strange quilt. And I thought of my Grandma," Jones said.  "It was such a warm, comforting, middle class, middle America, traditional family values sort of symbol.  And I thought, 'Ah ha.'"

From that idea, the AIDS Memorial Quilt was born. Cleve and two friends, Mike Smith and Gert McMullin, began sewing the first panels. Word got out, and soon San Francisco was inundated with panels sent by grieving family members.  

"These were people who were loved! These were people who had families! These are people who made enormous contributions to their communities," said Jones.

At the time, Jim Bunn was a young KPIX-5 reporter covering the epidemic. Looking back now, he said it was the quilt that changed the way the country looked at the disease.

"What it did was, each one of those quilts was a human loss. And it was a human loss felt by the people who experienced that loss," said Bunn. "It changed how anyone who was a skeptic in those days looked at this as anything other than a human loss."  

Later, Bunn began working for the World Health Organization, where he and Cleve conspired to get some of the panels displayed at the organization's headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, launching the quilt--and the fight against the disease--as a world-wide effort.  

"That's one of the things the quilt became, was sort of an entry point for people to join the movement against HIV/AIDS," said Jones.

He said he always believed in the idea of the quilt, but was surprised by how powerful it became. Jones said he is still struck by its profound beauty as the largest piece of public art in the world. 

These days, as a union activist, Jones is still fighting for causes he believes in. And as a man living with HIV, he still marvels at his own survivability. While he is proud to receive the Lifetime of Commitment Award, he offered a tongue-in-cheek response to the honor.

"It's a little alarming, because I've been getting quite a few of these this last month. And I'm thinking, 'Is somebody talking to my doctor?'" he said laughing. "Am I on my way out and this is their last chance to say, "hey, good job?'"

If it is, it would certainly include his old friend and co-conspirator, Jim Bunn.

"This is one of the truly special people that God put on this planet. He has never lost his fire," said Bunn.  "You know, when I grow up, I want to be Cleve Jones."

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