Making an 'Absolutely Positive' Difference


The following is an excerpt of remarks Steve Villano, president and CEO of Cable Positive delivered at the group's annual dinner April 25 in New York.

On behalf of Cable Positive's board, honorary chairs and staff, welcome to "Absolutely Positively" — our annual benefit dinner and the kick-off of Cable Positive's 10th year of service to the industry and the public in the fight against HIV and AIDS.

Your presence here is a testament to the tenacity and determination of many dedicated people during the past decade. People like: Cable Positive founder Jeffrey Bernstein; past dinner honorees James Dolan of Cablevision Systems Corp. and Leo Hindery of the YES [Yankees Entertainment & Sports] Network, who have been powerful allies in the fight against HIV and AIDS; and tonight's dinner co-chairs, Carole Black of Lifetime Entertainment Services, Glenn Britt of Time Warner Cable and Larry Divney of Comedy Central.

Since we met last May, we witnessed a national frenzy over five anthrax-related deaths and a national silence over the five AIDS-related deaths, which occur every 55 seconds.

But, by your presence here you have chosen action over silence, direct involvement over despair, against what Dan Rather has declared to be "the defining challenge of our time."

You have founded and funded tangible programs like "AIDS in the Workplace Training," and employee assistance — educating and helping thousands of your colleagues across the corridor or across the country.

You've provided millions of dollars in support for AIDS research and direct services grants from Boston to Sacramento [Calif.], and millions more for local and national AIDS awareness and prevention messages.

Over the past decade, you have donated tens of millions of dollars of airtime to bring those powerful HIV/AIDS prevention messages into 100 million households worldwide — bringing about a measurable increase in the number of people getting tested for HIV.

Your life-affirming support caused the Kaiser Family Foundation earlier this year to call Cable Positive's work "unique, both as a resource to the industry and a vehicle to act collectively on a critical issue."

But are we doing enough?

I know that's a question none of us want to hear, with balance sheets buckling, stock prices sliding, and layoffs hitting home. Unfortunately, HIV and AIDS have suffered no such decline. In fact, the opposite is true — when times are tough and poverty increases — so does the rate of infection.

Am I doing enough?

I ask myself that question daily, when I think of my friend Jeff Schmaltz, who wrote for The New York Times
and covered state government at the time I worked with [New York Gov.] Mario Cuomo. Jeff died of AIDS one-year after Cable Positive was born — died articulating a silent scream against those of us in government and in the private sector, who hid behind the walls of our office cubicles — much like the witnesses to Kitty Genovese's murder hid behind their window curtains — and watched such an evil killer take his young and promising life.

I rerun the tape in my mind of the night there was a death-threat on Mario Cuomo's life, and Jeff, spotting my ashen face, asked me what was wrong. I told him of the flashback I had of Bobby Kennedy on the kitchen floor of the Ambassador Hotel, and how I did not want to lose another hero. He put his arm around my shoulder and took me for a beer — simple, human gestures of compassion, never returned.

Did we do enough to save heroes like Jeff Schmaltz, or Arthur Ashe, or Joel Berger? Or did we find excuses — all reasonable, of course — to not do more — other priorities, other commitments, other causes?

How many of us would do what tonight's honoree Bill McGorry did — bend the rules for a colleague and a friend before the days when being HIV positive was a legally protected disability? Preserve Joel Berger's job through his final day's so Joel could die with dignity?

How many of us would have the courage of a Rebekka Armstrong, a former Playboy playmate, who went public with her HIV status in 1994, and this year serves as Cable Positive's spokesperson on college campuses and for National HIV Testing Day — to underscore the virus' increasing impact on women.

Late last year, I was honored to be selected as one of the "Cablefax 100." However, instead of seeing another funny looking middle-aged white man on the page, a svelte-looking red ribbon took the place of my face — a dramatic improvement, I might add.

My 86-year-old Italian mother did not agree.

"Everyone will think you have AIDS," she said, horrified.

I looked at her in her wheelchair, remembering her lifelong struggle to overcome the paralysis of polio, and nodded.

"Then I shall be honored to be thought of so highly, as a person of courage, overcoming a disability."

Whether we find meaning in our lives by creating a work or doing a deed, the way Jeffrey Bernstein created Cable Positive; by finding energy through love for another person, the way Bill McGorry did with his love for Joel Berger; or, by courageously transforming tragedy into triumph, as Rebekka Armstrong has taught us — all of us here are "Absolutely Positively" committed to doing more life-affirming work in the fight against HIV and AIDS.