By Courtney Lindwall
If Bobby Davis were to write a story about AIDS, he said he would call it “Young Men With Canes.”
It would be the story of young men with short lives, of disease without treatment, of sickness with shame. Eventually, it would be the story of progress.
For nearly 30 years, Davis has led the fight in Alachua County agrainst the virus that at times has seemed unbeatable. In that job, he was an advocate, community leader, mentor and friend.
This year will be his last.
Oct. 31 will be Davis’ final day as the HIV/AIDS program coordinator for a 15-county region across North Central Florida, a position based at the Alachua County Health Department.
For Davis, it began in 1985, when he was a public health specialist. It was just four years after the first mysterious cases of rare illness began dotting the urban areas of New York and California. It was only three years after the Centers for Disease Control used the word “AIDS” for the first time.
It was the year actor Rock Hudson would die from AIDS but still two years before President Ronald Reagan would publicly address the virus for the first time.
“I had no illusions that education was going to stop this disease,” Davis said. “I didn’t see it going away anytime soon.”
In his first year, 1985, Davis would handle six cases of HIV; most would end in funerals.
“When we first started testing, people were coming in, and they were already very sick,” Davis said.
“They were testing late in the disease. They’d be dead in six months. We didn’t have any cures. We were just monitoring.”
Karen Klubertanz, a longtime colleague of Davis’ and head of the Ryan White Program at WellFlorida Council, remembers the frustration early public health specialists felt.
“That was really, really difficult for Bobby to see,” she said, “to watch them go from walking on two feet, to using a cane, to using a wheelchair.”
In 1987, the first treatments arrived, starting with the controversial cancer drug AZT and later with more effective drug cocktails.
“As people started to be able to stabilize, we felt that we could see the fruits of our work,” Klubertanz said.
In 1989, Davis took the title of HIV/AIDS program coordinator.
“I’d been doing a paint-by-number. I was using a small brush, coloring in the fives. While it’s personally very satisfying, this gave me the opportunity to say what color the fives were going to be,” Davis said. “I got to affect a broader scope of service.”
Colleagues and staff remember his commitment.
“That condition became his life. He made a conscious decision to prevent (HIV) and give support to people who had HIV,” said Joanne Auth, a former peer from graduate school who continued to work in health care for the University of Florida’s clinic.
Davis had worked in environmental health and prenatal care, bringing vitamins and food stamps to women in need of iron and protein. Work like this put Davis out in the community and, combined with his modest upbringing, gave him a special knack for communicating with people.
Davis grew up on a small farm in Limona, near Tampa, one of four children who helped raise cows, pigs, peacocks and hens. He attended a Catholic high school, went to UF to study journalism and then decided he didn’t want to become a writer after all.
So he left for the war.
Davis was in the Navy for four years, one of which was spent on small boats in Vietnam. During that time, Davis was introduced to a public health crisis in Vietnam, where cholera was epidemic and some people built houses out of flattened beer cans.
He returned to school on the G.I. Bill, studied anthropology at UF, and began his career in public health. He married, moved to his nearly 40-acre property on the Santa Fe River in Worthington Springs, and had his first son.
Meanwhile, HIV had quietly reached the United States.
“Early on, there was panic. Rumors were rampant about how it spread,” Davis said.
Some thought HIV could be spread through toilet seats or casual contact. People were afraid of swimming pools and food workers. There was the persistent rumor that mosquitoes carried HIV — Davis still gets questions about that one.
The stigma sometimes was the toughest opponent.
Christine Collis, 47, remembers how hard it was for her to accept being HIV positive.
“For 13 years, I lived in hiding,” Collis said.
After years of feeling isolated and unworthy, Collis came to terms with her diagnosis — largely because of Davis.
“Bobby is a motivator. He makes you feel empowered,” Collis said. “He has that compassion, bringing you up to the point where you’re comfortable in your own skin.”
Davis became a mentor but also a friend. He gave Collis the couch in her living room and sometimes a little extra money to help her take care of her great-niece.
He talked with her after a difficult break-up, and he nominated her for a position in the health department’s “Peer Program,” which links newly diagnosed people with the services they need.
The program has decreased no-show rates for appointments because of the individualized care it gives to clients.
“I can say, ‘I do understand what you’re going through.’ I can connect and relate to them,” Collis said.
Today, Collis’ HIV is undetectable.
Over and over, those who’ve worked with Davis recall his humanity. He monitors health, not morality.
“These people are human. There’s a whole bunch of issues attached to their sexual history and sexual life,” Davis said.
He saw first-hand the devastation of AIDS, like the young girl whose plan was to hide her AIDS medications from her family in a teddy bear or the child who contracted HIV through sexual abuse.
Davis learned that every person faces obstacles — “the huge chasms you had to cross on a rope bridge you made yourself,” he calls them.
Today, the disease is a far cry from the public health crisis Davis faced in ’85, although it continues to be devastating to many.
Davis’ retirement is mandated by the state before he turns 67, but he said he plans to continue volunteering at the health department.
He will spend more time with his wife and four children, three biological and one adopted from a difficult home life. He looks forward to fishing on his property along the Santa Fe River and watching his seven grandchildren race down hallways and play hide-and-seek.
The state will choose a replacement director, but his staff knows it will be difficult to find another Bobby Davis. They’ll miss his quirks, like his famous one-liner.
When asked how he’s doing, Davis typically responds, “Young and in love.”