Vibrant leader kept AIDS secret
By JUDY L. THOMAS - The Kansas City Star
But when he flew home to Boston for the holidays at the end of 1998, something wasn't right.
"He looked very ill, but we weren't exactly sure what it was," said his brother, the Rev. James Savage. "He just said he was worn out...."
What the family didn't know was that the Christmas Thom Savage had come home to celebrate would be his last.
Less than five months later, Father Thom Savage died of AIDS.
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Exuberant, brilliant and dedicated to improving urban life, Thom Savage moved to Kansas City from Connecticut in 1988 to become president of Rockhurst College, now known as Rockhurst University.
Though he was only 41, the challenge of running a university didn't intimidate him. Savage was well-known throughout Kansas City for his activism and his pithy contributions to the radio talk show "Religion on the Line."
He served on the boards of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and the Board of Trade and helped write FOCUS, Kansas City's exhaustive master plan.
Savage left Rockhurst in 1996, moving to San Francisco to work for a human resources consulting firm. Though already suffering AIDS, he kept it from nearly everyone.
"I had my 25th anniversary in the priesthood in 1995," said James Savage, who is a priest in Cambridge, Mass. "It was also the year of our mother's 90th birthday, and we were celebrating together. And he almost didn't make it, because he was so sick."
At the time, James Savage said, family members assumed Thom Savage was having asthma-related problems. He had struggled with asthma all his life.
"And then, from 1995 until he died, those four years, he never said anything to anybody," James Savage said.
When Thom Savage arrived home for Christmas in 1998, his frail appearance shocked family members. The question of AIDS, however, never came up.
"It's not the kind of thing that you want to deal with, because unfortunately, by saying that, what you're doing is making judgments," James Savage said.
He learned of his brother's illness only in early February after a friend of his brother who taught at Harvard University asked to meet with him.
"He said, 'Do you know what's really the matter with your brother?"' recalled James Savage. "I said, 'No.' And then he told me.
"And he said, 'He's having difficulty knowing what to do, and he's not talking to anybody about any of these things."'
The revelation stunned James Savage.
"I called him and said that I knew," he said. "He wasn't upset. He was kind of matter-of-fact about the whole thing. He said he had tried all the medications, and they just weren't working. And then I asked him whether he wanted me to tell our brothers and sisters, and he said, no, he wanted to do that himself.
"But he really never got to tell them in the way he wanted to."
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Thom Savage finally decided that he would return to Boston and take on lighter duties for the Jesuits.
"Then he got sick, then he got more sick," James Savage said.
When Thom Savage arrived in Boston late on Friday, May 7, he was taken to the Jesuit-run Campion Health Center in Weston.
"He kind of rallied for the weekend," James Savage said. "Everyone came to see him, he said his goodbyes Saturday and Sunday. And then Monday, he never really came to. I went there shortly after noon. My mother was there, I was there, my brother was there, and he died about 1 o'clock.
"So there was a closure, but even then he didn't really talk about dying."
As with his illness, Thom Savage also had hidden his homosexuality.
"He certainly wasn't open about it," James Savage said. "Otherwise, we could have suspected what he might have. So there was no intimation of that."
The Rev. Tom Lequin, a priest in Presque Isle, Maine, attended seminary with Thom Savage in the Jesuits' New England Province.
"He was my classmate and a good friend," Lequin said. "He was a creative genius. And gifted? Oh, my God. He was just an exceptional person."
Lequin said Savage kept his illness as quiet as possible.
"He carried it alone," he said. "That was the downside of him, because he was so capable and competent."
Bishop Raymond J. Boland of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph said he, like most everyone else, did not know that Thom Savage had AIDS.
"The last time I saw him, I thought he looked sickly," Boland said. "The next thing I heard he was very, very ill, and he was transferred by his community back to Weston."
But it shouldn't matter how he died, Boland said.
"It'll make a difference to the person who thinks that, therefore, he was unfaithful to his vows," he said. "To the person who is big enough to say, `OK, he may have been unfaithful to his vows, but he may have also acquired the disease some other way,' it'll make no difference whatsoever, because it will say that in God's hands, we're going to leave it.
"He did a lot of wonderful priestly work while he was living."
Thom Savage's family finds comfort in knowing that. Yet with that comfort still comes pain -- not only because he kept his illness from his family, but also because his life was cut so short.
"It's very sad to see all that talent go to waste," James Savage said. "It's just such a wasteful disease. It not only wastes the body, but it wastes all the talent potential of the people who die from the illness."
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Near the altar in the sanctuary stood a large, gold-framed oil painting of Savage in his red-and-black academic attire from Harvard University, a Rockhurst president's medallion around his neck.
During the service, the Rev. Patrick Rush, vicar general of the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese, asked those attending to thank Savage for his performance as a community leader and Rockhurst president. Three hundred people stood and applauded.
"Thom Savage was -- let's face it -- a showman," Rush said. "His life was a virtuoso performance of humanity, of Catholic Christian spirituality, of Jesuit mission.
"I don't pretend to know why his time was so brief," Rush added. "...Thom Savage leaves us to ponder his premature death and his dedicated life."
Rockhurst President Edward Kinerk, who was Savage's provincial in St. Louis, noted that Savage had entered the seminary in 1967.
"As a Jesuit, I cannot feel anything but pride and gratitude for a meteor that burned itself out in the service of others," Kinerk said. "On May 10, 1999, God took the gift back.
"Thom is with God. As Jesuits, we rejoice. He has done what God sent him to do."