How Nellie Oleson Became an AIDS Activist




I more than passed the final exam; I got the highest score anyone had gotten on it. I not only worked the phones but also wound up at the food bank, the hospice, and ultimately the speakers’ bureau. I was sent all over Los Angeles to speak on AIDS and HIV—schools, offices, even prisons. Many of these had turned away AIDS speakers before. They didn’t know them, they were strangers, and they worried—crazy as it was—that they’d bring AIDS with them. But they knew me. I had been in their living rooms. I wasn’t a threat; I was a TV star. I’d sign autographs, I’d quote Nellie-isms, I’d do whatever they wanted—as long as they listened to me and wised up about AIDS.

Skeptics said I wouldn’t keep up my activism for long. “They always quit when the friend dies,” the old-timers at the organization said. I didn’t even allow that thought to enter my mind. I wasn’t blind—I saw that Steve was getting worse. He looked so pale and gaunt, as if a strong breeze might blow him away. We both knew the end was coming, though we never discussed it. Good-time girls don’t talk about dying. That wasn’t in my job description.

Then one night in November 1986, Steve called. He told me what I had been dreading for several months: he had very little time left, and his mother and sister were coming to take him home to Florida. He wanted to die at home. I was inconsolable. I wanted to rush to his side and keep him here with me. I thought if I could just hold on to him, I could stop death in its tracks.

But then Steve said, “Don’t worry, this isn’t the end; it’s just a change in the relationship.”

Less than a week later, on Thanksgiving Day, Steve Tracy died. I didn’t get the call from his family until a few days later. But I already knew. I was heading home from Thanksgiving dinner at my parents’ house, when Donald and I stopped for gas. It wasn’t terribly late, and we weren’t in a particularly bad neighborhood, and yet I was suddenly hit by the most overwhelming sense of danger.

When Don got back in the car, I said, “I think something’s happened.” He didn’t dismiss this feeling. He sensed it, too. We drove home in silence. So when the call came from Steve’s family, it wasn’t a surprise.

Steve’s death was very hard on his mother and sister, who had stood by him through his illness, even though they lived in Tampa, Florida, a city that was not exactly what you would call enlightened about the AIDS crisis. When he died, their local funeral home refused to cremate him. They wouldn’t take the body. Nor would the next place his mother called. Or the next one.

We’d had trouble like this in Los Angles, too. The AIDS hotline even made a list of funeral homes you could call that knew that you didn’t get AIDS from preparing a dead person for cremation. But Steve’s mom wasn’t in Los Angeles. She finally found a funeral home that would help her: the one funeral home that took people who had died of AIDS was the only African-American-owned funeral home in town. Having been the target of discrimination and hatred for so many years, back to the days when white-owned funeral homes wouldn’t touch the body of a black person, its owners understood what it was like to have someone tell you that you can’t bury your loved one, because “we don’t serve your kind.”

After they got him cremated, Steve’s mom and sister brought him back to L.A. They fulfilled his final wish and scattered his ashes under the Hollywood sign. If you’re ever looking up at it, that’s Steve, right there under the D.

There was a small memorial for Steve at the home of a friend of his. His mom and sister got to meet their now famous son’s Hollywood friends. Melissa Gilbert and I stood in the kitchen drinking wine from plastic cups and toasting Steve’s memory. He was the first of our Little House cast to die before his time. We didn’t know then how many more we would lose.

Despite the old-timers at AIDS Project Los Angeles’ predictions, I didn’t quit when Steve died, and I still haven’t. Instead, I’ve spent the past decades working with different AIDS organizations all over the country. I eventually met my soul mate, my second husband, Bob, through my activism, and I made a couple of hundred best friends along the way. Of course, I lost most of them to the disease, but I still see all of their faces—and hear all of their voices—clear as day. Steve’s is the brightest and loudest among them. And he has all the best lines. 

Purchase Confessions of a Prairie Bitchhere.

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