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‘A gift to you:’ AIDS Quilt panels in Lake Worth Beach include new one tuned with music

Updated: Dec 5, 2022

Julie Seaver and Graham Brown hold the newest addition to the AIDS Memorial Quilt (Photo by Tom Johnson)

ONE OF THE newest panels in the AIDS Memorial Quilt comes with, of all things, a QR code. Scan the code with your smartphone and you’ll hear a happy song called “Bring Me Sunshine” by a swing band called The Jive Aces.

The morning before Jerry Johnston died, he was in the hospital texting that song to family and friends, recalled his former partner of 20 years, Michael Fowler of Palm Beach Gardens.

Johnston succumbed to AIDS in 2012. He was 48. It took Fowler some 10 years to create the panel in honoring a man who worked as a rocket scientist and had a knack for kindness.

But when Fowler finally put the finishing touches on the panel, he took advantage of technology that wasn't around 10 years ago. He added the QR code.

“The song is a gift to you,’’ Fowler said Thursday night at a candlelight vigil at the Compass LGBTQ+ Community Center in Lake Worth Beach, where more than 100 people gathered for the organization's annual World AIDS Day ceremony.

Johnston’s was one of two new panels, along with one honoring Harry Neil Weise, unveiled at the Compass ceremony, which kicked off two weeks of programming centered around the quilt.

The two new panels are among 35 panels on display through Dec. 12 during normal business hours at Compass in downtown Lake Worth Beach. The Compass exhibit marks the largest AIDS Quilt display in southeast Florida.

Other panels will be displayed around Palm Beach County, including the Box Gallery at 811 Belvedere Road in West Palm Beach; the Lynn University Library at 3601 N. Military Trail in Boca Raton; the main Palm Beach County branch at 3650 Summit Blvd. in West Palm Beach and at county library branches at 18685 State Road 7 in Boca Raton and at 705 Military Trail in Jupiter.

Eventually the two new panels will be added to the national AIDS Memorial Quilt, which began in 1987 when activist Cleve Jones created the first panel to honor his friend Marvin Feldman.

“Since then the quilt has taken the world by storm,’’ said Dylan Brooks, director of HIV prevention and education at Compass.

AIDS quilt at The Box Gallery (Photo by Rolando Chang Barrero)

Today the national quilt, a 54-ton, handmade tapestry, includes about 50,000 panels dedicated to more than 110,000 of the 32.7 million people around the world who have died of AIDS since the start of the pandemic in the 1980s.

“World AIDS Day is about honoring and remembering the loved ones that we lost and embracing our long-term survivors and gathering together in community,’’ said Julie Seaver, executive director of Compass.

The total number of people with HIV in Palm Beach County increased to 8,417, “the highest level in the last five years,’’ Dr. Casey Messer, the HIV and AIDS programs manager at Palm Beach County Community Services, said at the Compass ceremony.

(Photo by Tom Johnson)

“A large contributing factor was that HIV-related deaths were the lowest in the last five years,’’ he said. “There are more people living with HIV because fewer people are dying from HIV.’’

Citing the latest data from the Florida Department of Health, Messer said there were 322 new HIV diagnoses in Palm Beach County in 2021, a 51 percent increase over the previous year.

More than 50 percent of the new diagnoses were among black people, he said.

Dr. Casey Messer, HIV and AIDS programs manager for Palm Beach County Community Services, looks at an AIDS quilt at Compass (Joe Capozzi)

“Black persons with HIV were nine times more likely to experience an HIV-related death compared to white persons with HIV,’’ Messer said. “There is significant work left to be done.’’

Worldwide, about 35 million people are living with HIV/AIDS. In the United States, 1.2 million are living with HIV, and nearly 1 in 8 are unaware of their infection.

Fowler said he hopes Johnston’s panel makes people smile.

“He was brilliant. Part of that brilliance was that he cared for humans, people, anybody in need,’’ he said. “Part of what I hope you see in the panel is the way he gave back to everyone around him.’’

Michael Fowler (right) photographs the quilt he made honoring his late partner Jerry Johnston (Joe Capozzi)

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About the author

Joe Capozzi is an award-winning reporter based in Lake Worth Beach. He spent more than 30 years writing for newspapers, mostly at The Palm Beach Post, where he wrote about the opioid scourge, invasive pythons, the birth of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and Palm Beach County government. For 15 years, he covered the Miami Marlins baseball team. Joe left The Post in December 2020. View all posts by Joe Capozzi.


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