October 9, 2008
|Copello, AIDS advocate who worked to unify AIDS community|
AIDS advocates mourned the death this week of Dr. Gene Copello, founder and executive director of the Washington, D.C. advocacy organization the AIDS Institute. Copello died Monday after a long battle with kidney problems. He was 49.
Those who knew Copello remember an intelligent, genial workaholic who was passionate about unifying often-divided AIDS advocates to reach consensus.
"What was most remarkable about Gene is how he brought the community together," said Carl Schmid, AIDS Institute's director of federal affairs. "We hope what he did, we can continue to do."
Copello founded the AIDS Institute in 2003 as a Washington, D.C. outgrowth of Florida AIDS Action, a Tampa-based AIDS organization. Copello and the AIDS Institute soon became a respected voice on federal AIDS advocacy issues.
"Most of us were just wondering where the AIDS Institute came from! Gene made a place for himself in Washington relatively quickly and recognized the importance of new voices in HIV and AIDS advocacy," said Bill Smith, SIECUS vice president of public policy who served as co-chair of the Federal AIDS Policy Partnership (FAPP) with Copello and National Minority AIDS Council executive director Paul Kawata.
The three of them enjoyed monthly brunches at the Mayflower Hotel, where over eggs, bacon and lots of coffee they would discuss AIDS advocacy as well as their own lives. "Gene always made it a priority to be a good colleague and be a good friend," Smith said.
Smith described Copello as a mentor and said he was originally ambivalent about becoming FAPP co-chair since his group deals with comprehensive sex education. "Gene said to me, 'We need to expand the voices if we're going to end the epidemic.' I wouldn't have done it if it wasn't for Gene saying their voice is important in the mix," Smith said.
Copello was involved in AIDS advocacy for 25 years. Before joining Florida AIDS Action, Copello served as Chief of HIV Services for the City of San Francisco and as Executive Director of the San Mateo County AIDS Program in California. He began his career as a faculty member at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, where he also founded and directed the Vanderbilt AIDS Project.
"As an educator, Gene particularly supported the need for housing for people with AIDS, and made it a priority for the AIDS Institute," said Nancy Bernstine, executive director of the National AIDS Housing Coalition, of which Copello was a longtime board member.
In addition, Copello served as co-chair of the Federal AIDS Policy Partnership, and on the boards of American Academy of HIV Medicine, Caucus for Evidence-Based Prevention, and many other organizations. He also was an appointed member of the United States delegation to the 2008 United Nations General Assembly High Level Meeting on AIDS.
"Gene was on so many committees and facilitated so many groups, and it's going to be a major loss to try to fill those shoes," said Housing Works Vice President of National Advocacy and Organizing Christine Campbell. "He knew how to build relationships with everyone and find commonalities so we could move forward together."
Although Copello long battled health problems, only those close to him realized how serious they were. "It was not easy for him, but he didn't want people to know how much pain he was often in," Smith said.
Services for Copello will be held at St. Thomas' Episcopal Church, 1772 Church St. NW, Washington, D.C., at 1 p.m.. on Monday, October 13. Following this, a reception will take place at 2:30 pm at the residence of Copello and Frederick Wright. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the AIDS Institute in Copello's honor.