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Amid a frank and, at times, funny discussion of AIDS, the horrible truth of the disease hits home for friends.

Published Oct. 18, 1995|Updated Oct. 4, 2005

Nobody could have planned the terrible coincidence that greeted one of the major events of Greek Week this week at the University of South Florida.

Hundreds of fraternity and sorority members arrived at the Tampa campus' Special Events Center on Monday evening, expecting to hear a lecture about friendship and AIDS.

They came to hear Joel Goldman, a former fraternity president from the University of Indiana, and his old college buddy, T.J. Sullivan. The two men, about 30, are among the most effective speakers on AIDS I've ever heard _ Sullivan for his comedian's skill at describing human foibles, especially of the drunken college student variety; Goldman for his unflinching honesty at what he let alcohol and old-fashioned horniness do to him.

But first, an announcement had to be made.

Two brothers from Sigma Chi took the stage.

Scott Tweedy, a sophomore from Valrico and the chapter's secretary, leaned unsteadily into the podium while chapter president Mike Herbig of Vero Beach stood quietly behind him.

Our chapter has just experienced a tragedy, Tweedy said. One of our brothers, Jerry Nicoli, died Sunday night.

"He had AIDS."

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A quiet fell over the cavernous room. Young men who had been joking and jostling sat perfectly still, their wide eyes straining to see what they couldn't believe their ears had just heard.

A few shed tears, as did some young women. Rocking from one foot to the other, Tweedy went on in a soft and halting voice to describe how he had met Jarryd, as his friend preferred to be known, when both men had pledged Sigma Chi in September a year ago.

Jarryd was a former tennis star, a graduate of Old Dominion University, who was taking more classes at USF because he'd never lived in Florida and because he wanted to be a doctor. When he accepted his bid to join Sigma Chi, nobody knew his HIV status but him. But at his first pledge meeting, he had stood up and shared his secret with 60 new friends.

If they didn't want him to be a brother, Jarryd had said, that was okay. He understood.

"Not one of us knew what to do, what to say," Tweedy recalled Monday night. "But one thing we all knew: how much courage he had to come into our circle and stand up and admit this."

The brothers of Sigma Chi invited him in.

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Later that fall semester, Goldman and Sullivan came to USF as part of a standard college tour. Only about 30 students showed up. But Jarryd was one of them, as Goldman recalled during this second visit a year later.

Jarryd had introduced himself to Goldman and confided that he too was a fraternity brother with AIDS. Jarryd was glad to see someone like Goldman traveling around and sharing his story, but sorry at how few USF students would be hearing the message.

"I think he'd be very happy tonight," Goldman said, waving his hand toward the thousand or so young adults who were listening. True, they'd come as part of Greek Week, a highly organized period of spirit-building and fund-raising activity for charity, in which fraternities and sororities earned points for attendance. But at least they were there.

For more than an hour, Goldman and Sullivan entertained the students with tales of parties and jokes about sex. There was nothing puritanical about it. They rightly assumed that many college students, men and women, are drinking a lot and having sex. Why, we've even done it ourselves, they said.

The crowd enjoyed its laughs.

But interspersed in all the joking was plenty of good advice for managing that potentially deadly combination. Goldman, who is HIV-positive, attributes his status to his lack of judgment while partying. Already as red-blooded as the next guy, he said drinking made him even more eager to "hook up," and when he was drunk he didn't bother with protected sex.

Due credit was given to those who wisely choose abstinence _ either alcohol or sex. But face it: Few of these hearty young college students are doing that. They still deserve whatever advice they need to live.

What they also need, Sullivan said, is the shared responsibility of brotherhood and sisterhood. Especially when an estimated one in every 250 college students is HIV-positive, and one in four is infected with herpes: "Look around the room," he said. "You think you're sitting in a roomfull of exceptions?"

"We've gotten pretty good about taking people's keys away. But we'll let our friends stumble home with any old loser and call 'em up the next morning and say, what happened?"

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To their everlasting credit, the Sigma Chis are telling us something today about brotherhood.

Shortly before the brothers crossed the stage in single file Monday night to deposit one white rose apiece in honor of their departed friend, Scott Tweedy told how they had all crowded into Jarryd's hospital room last December to carry out his initiation. "We were afraid to look up, as I am right now, because we knew we would start bawling."

Jarryd didn't come back to school the next semester, but he did visit for rush in September, looking hale and hearty.

"A lot of people are going to tell you about high risk groups," Tweedy told his fellow Greeks. "But this virus does not care who you are ... if you're not responsible.

"And you know what the saddest thing is? We didn't know anything about AIDS until Jarryd came into our lives. That's the ultimate irresponsibility.

"Don't let someone have to come into your life to teach you how to be responsible. Learn something tonight. Don't go home and forget."

After Monday night, it would be a miracle if anyone could.

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