In 1989, there was only one FDA-approved drug to treat HIV/AIDS. People weren’t “living with HIV.” They were dying from AIDS. And in many cases, they were dying alone – separated from family and healthcare providers by pervasive stigma. It was a time of compounding loss and fear, when everyday heroes took the place of family to offer kindness and compassion to the dying. It was also a time when, grassroots activists advocated for research, humane public policy, and access to care.
Chuck Usher, a dental hygienist and massage therapist, was one of those heroes. Chuck was a founding member of the Ohio AIDS Coalition (OAC). OAC marched at the forefront of Ohio’s HIV/AIDS activism for 28 years, providing education, leadership, training, advocacy, and support for people living with HIV. A lifelong student and practitioner of healing methods, Chuck was a stalwart at OAC’s Healing Weekends for people living with HIV. Chuck died on April 18 at his home in Columbus, Ohio. He was 72.
Today, four OAC family members – Donald Laufersweiler, Kathleen Lewis, José Rodriguez, and Julia Applegate – remember Chuck Usher as a healer, advocate, and friend.
Kathleen Lewis – Yoga instructor, reflexologist, Reiki practitioner and long-time OAC volunteer
I have known Chuck since 1988. We met as volunteers for OAC’s Healing Weekends, which took place all over the state. We hit it off immediately and discovered we were practically neighbors. We worked as therapists during the Healing Weekends. Chuck did massage. I did reflexology and taught yoga. We would also lead workshops and facilitate small groups. These were the days when many people died from HIV. Some participants showed up with IV poles. These weekends were very emotional for everyone involved. Chuck and I would meet on Sunday evening for dinner, or Monday morning for breakfast, to process our feelings and experiences from the weekend. We became very close.
Donald Laufersweiler – Retired psychotherapist and a founding member of OAC
Chuck was always in learning mode to focus the care of his dental patients and massage clients on their specific needs. He took his massage practice to the next level by learning from the masters in Thailand and China. Chuck also learned, then taught, techniques to use while working with people living with HIV and cancer. This came out of his desire to help and be available when needed – not for profit.
For Chuck, massage was about touching the body and the soul to connect in the most honorable and respectful way possible. At the same time, he never lost site that humor was part of the process. Chuck allowed people to be real – and to heal – without judgment.
José Rodriguez – Director of Community Relations, Equitas Health
Chuck understood the connection between physical healing and emotional and spiritual well-being. He studied all over the world and brought the techniques he learned back to Columbus. Once, he was driving back from the airport, returning home from India. He calls me from the car: “I’m coming over. I want to try this technique out on you.” He couldn’t wait to put what he had learned into practice. All of this knowledge and enthusiasm went into his volunteer work at OAC’s Healing Weekends.
Julia Applegate – Director of the Equitas Health Institute and former AC employee & volunteer
At the end of every Healing Weekend, Chuck would lead the Healing Circle. He would start by demonstrating the power of giving and receiving healing touch with a baby doll. It was battery-operated, so it could move and make sounds. He would take the batteries out and hold the motionless, soundless doll with one hand. Then someone else would hold the doll in one hand and join their other hand with his. The doll would move and make sounds. He was showing us how much stronger our energy was when we connected to each other. When we formed the Healing Circle, we shared that energy. It was powerful. It was a gift that I will always cherish.
Chuck transformed both of his careers to support his efforts as an HIV/AIDS advocate. In the early days of the AIDS crisis, many dental practices would not treat gay men, especially those living with HIV/AIDS. Chuck and the practices where he worked made the decision to follow science, not stigma. Chuck was that frontline person providing welcoming dental care for the Columbus LGBTQ+ community.
OAC was celebrating its 50th Healing Weekend when I first attended as an employee. Healing Weekends were all about hope, healing and empowerment – safe spaces for people to cry, to celebrate, and to feel loved. In this era of HIV/AIDS, the disease was so stigmatized. People living with HIV & AIDS were often touch deprived. Participants would arrive Friday afternoon feeling scared and nervous. By Sunday afternoon, it became this magical space. No one wanted to leave. Chuck’s power as a healer and dedication to OAC’s mission were a big part of that magic.
This is who he was and what he did. He impacted so many people’s lives.
I worked on a lot of fundraisers for the Columbus AIDS Task Force, and Chuck was always one of my go-to donors. He would donate massage gift certificates. Buy a full-page ad in a program. Whatever I needed. He didn’t need to do that. He had a large and loyal clientele, but he still wanted to contribute.
When one of my best friends was dying from AIDS, his parents wouldn’t let him come home. I didn’t have the space at the time. Chuck took him in. I will never forget that kindness. He did that on four other occasions.
Chuck and I were friends for more than thirty years. He was a kind soul who made time for everyone. He made an effort to maintain contact with his friends. Chuck’s work made it easy for him to engage with the community. His humor and openness to connection made him a safe, comforting, and memorable person.
We had a “friends date night” every other Thursday for more than 12 years. It would start out with a massage, and then we would have dinner. We cherished that time together. We were both interested in our connection to the world around us: everything from talking about when the wrens were returning to greeting people with salutations in their native language. Chuck was a world traveler and would learn tourist language skills for every destination. Chuck always said “hello” and “thank you” in Thai at our favorite Thai restaurant.
Chuck and I also shared a passion for hiking. When our busy schedules permitted, if one of us called the other and said – “Can you go hiking?” – off we would go! Our two favorite spots were Yellow Springs and Highbanks Metro Park. Our hikes, like those Healing Weekend debriefings, always included food – lunch or breakfast. The last time I spoke with him on the phone, we talked about hiking.
For the last two years, Chuck went on all of these wonderful trips with different groups of friends: Argentina, New Zealand, Costa Rica, Cuba, Egypt, and Australia. Only now am I realizing how purposeful it was. He planned it. He wanted to spend that time with all of us. He wanted it to be special, so we would remember him.
I remember Chuck’s smile. He was a big guy: strong and tall. He gave the best hugs. Even with his physical presence, he gave so much. He radiated so much good energy. When you were with him, it was palpable.
Chuck always looked much younger than he was. At the Columbus Museum of Art’s Stonewall Exhibition, there is a Red Party poster with Chuck in full leather gear. I took a picture of him standing next to it. That poster is at least 30 years old, and Chuck looks exactly the same.
Chuck, Don Laufersweiler and I have celebrated our birthdays together for… I don’t remember how many years. We always got together to celebrate. On March 14th, Don and I took Chuck to Giuseppe’s to celebrate his 72nd birthday. Of course, he could have passed for 52!
He will be missed.