Dickinson College, Fall 2023

Category: 1980s

The Farm from Caravan to Changeover

“We were raised to think that we were that we were the people in the world who were living the right way.

– Jen Cort, The Farm resident from 1973 to 1984


“’The cultural cliché has it that the flower children danced at Woodstock, crashed at Altamont, and gradually shed their naïve ideals as they made themselves into ice-cream moguls, media magnates, and triangulating politicians,’ Jim Windolf wrote in Vanity Fair in 2007. ‘But the 200 people who live at the Farm,” he added, ‘have managed to hang on to the hippie spirit.’”

-Stephen Gaskin’s Obituary, NYT


The American Yawp textbook calls the 1960s and 70s a time of the counterculture that was defined by “Rock ‘n’ roll, liberalized sexuality, an embrace of diversity, recreational drug use, unalloyed idealism, and pure earnestness.”[1] However, the counterculture was more than just a common group of sentiments and pop-culture items. Many who considered themselves members of the counterculture launched new ventures and made attempts to change the world. One type of attempt at changing the world was the creation of communes. My mother, her siblings, and her stepfathers lived on a commune called The Farm in Summertown, Tennessee.

Gaskin teaching on The Farm in 1972 – Courtesy of LA Times

Stephen Gaskin was an English professor turned activist who lectured on the use of psychedelic drugs and world religions. Gaskin amassed a following of roughly 300 people in a caravan of brightly painted school buses and VW vans. The group traveled around the country gaining followers on the way to a 1050-acre farm just south of Nashville. [2] Jen Cort, her mother Carol, and her sister Michelle joined the caravan. “We started our trip from Seattle to Tennessee when I was three and I arrived right after I turned four.” The rolling hills and open fields that later became The Farm were undeveloped, “I lived with my mom, my sister, and my mom’s friend in our bus” with little insulation a small camp stove for cooking and heat.[3]

The bus Jen Cort, her sister Michelle, and Mother traveled and lived in. -Courtesy of Jen Cort

New Farm commits were drawn to the commune for a variety of reasons. “There were a lot of things that went into the decision-making factor. One of the biggest drivers was fleeing the draft, Vietnam. But also, Ina May, who’s considering one of the Mothers of midwifery in this country, she really wanted a place to develop her midwifery practices and Steven, our founder, was her husband.”[4] Though the Vietnam War was coming to a close when Cort arrived at The Farm, anti-war sentiments ran hand-in-hand with an interest in returning to a simpler way of life; “we were creating the ideal life and being very centered on being in touch with nature, working to help people…and very close to the earth.[5] To ensure proximity to the earth, Farm residents followed a few expectations that fit with the commune’s philosophy; “the Farm’s young men in straw hats and beards and women in long skirts lived an almost puritanical life. They took vows of poverty and pooled their assets. Vegetarianism was mandatory. Mr. Gaskin banned alcohol, tobacco and, to the surprise of many, LSD, though not marijuana. Plenty work — considered a form of meditation — was assigned. Artificial birth control was forbidden.”[6] Future Vice President, Al Gore was friendly with Gaskin and wrote about The Farm for the Tennessean. “Gaskin’s followers eat no meat because they say they have made a ‘spiritual agreement’ with the animals. ‘There would be a lot more vegetarians if everyone had to kill his own meat,’ Gaskin said later.”[7] Gaskin’s followers also participated in the use of drugs and psychedelics, “he admits that his followers smoke it and occasionally do stronger drugs like peyote and psylocybin — or ‘mushrooms’ as they refer to it.”[8]

Cort, a child during her time on The Farm, did not participate in the drug use, however, she remembers her time growing up on The Farm as revolutionary and happy, “we always took history from different people’s perspective, like we had Native American history and women’s history…I remember our 5th-grade history class was around socialism and communism and how countries like Russia had done it wrong and failed with communism, but that we were doing it right.[9] The Farm was a largely idealistic place and was known internationally for its revolutionary ideals. “[Gaskin and The Farm Band] were on the Donahue show…[in] Time magazine, in the New York Times…Globally, they thought that we were doing right…At one point there were famous musicians and scientists, and you know writers who would come and spend time there because we were living in the way that people should live and not being as interested in what they call the material plane meaning physical things. “[10] One famous visitor was the mathematician Buckminster Fuller who was Cort’s math teacher and who she remembers teaching her to use a compass.

The Farm School Class Photo -Courtesy of Jen Cort

Despite idealistic and peaceful appearances, the conservative and rural local community surrounding The Farm did not always appreciate the communes presence. “We had a sign at the end of our road, and we couldn’t have advertisements about where we were because people would want to attack us, throughout my whole childhood people tried to attack us.[11] In an attempt to protect members of The Farm community and children from aggressive locals, most children weren’t allowed to leave the property unaccompanied and when they did they were buffered by adults speaking to locals for them. At the start of Cort’s freshman year in high school, she decided to secretly attend the public school off The Farm. After she started attending school she was exposed to the full brunt of local criticism, “We were called Devil worshippers, which I didn’t know what that meant but I knew it was bad.” After classmates at her school learned that Cort was living on The Farm, “I lost my status at school. I had sleepovers at my friend’s house all the time and then I couldn’t go to people’s houses after they found out I was from The Farm. I was a cheerleading alternate which at our school was a really big thing but then I was kicked off the team. Teachers started treating me differently because they suddenly knew where I was from. And so, it was very hard.[12]

Cort and Farm kids -Courtesy of Jen Cort

Cort says leaving The Farm school to attend a local high school was a contentious decision. After our recorded conversation, Cort explained that Gaskin grew angry with Cort and her mother for deciding to let Cort attend school off The Farm. She said Gaskin was verbally abusive to her. Gaskin’s relationship with Cort and her mother Carol may have also been related to Carol’s role in what is now called “the Changeover.” The Changeover was a moment in which The Farm reached a financial tipping point. The Farm had established many companies including a book-publishing business, a pickle company, a sorghum syrup brand, a Geiger counter-producer,[13] an ice cream company, and a successful midwifery clinic.[14] Despite many business ventures, The Farm was not making enough money to continue to feed the commune’s population or make payments on loans. Cort remembers “we were almost always hungry and cold and without shoes.[15] As a last effort to keep The Farm economically viable a fellow community member,  “Michael and [Cort’s mother Carol] worked together to orchestrate what is commonly referred to as the Changeover…The local bank was saying if you don’t pay back some of these loans, were going to take the land.”[16] Effectively, the 1983 Changeover meant “each adult Farm member was required to contribute financially toward the annual budget and operating expenses for the community.”[17] The Changeover marked a fundamental change in the history of The Farm, “Mom knew, and Michael knew before anyone else that the decisions they were making were going to completely alter the future of The Farm.”[18] The Farm was transformed overnight from a place mostly free of financial obligations in which the essence of the counterculture lived on to an intentional community which maintained some ideals of the old Farm. However, with the reintroduction of money to The Farm, it was nearly unrecognizable. “Nobody had any income like I don’t remember seeing a dollar bill when I was little, I had no idea that…something that was paper could buy me something,” said Cort.[19]

The Farm changed fundamentally after the Changeover and many families who came for the idealistic community that existed before began to leave The Farm. Cort and her family stayed for only a short while later before leaving themselves. By 1983, the Vietnam war had ended eight years previous and the peak of the counterculture movement had ended about a decade before. The Farm was an attempt to prolong and live out the values that anti-war and counterculture movements espoused. The end of The Farm as a commune and its transition into an intentional community was “entirely financial;” most of Gaskin’s and The Farm’s beliefs had remained intact until the very end, proving that intentional living and a radical way of life was possible.


[1] Samuel Abramson et al., “The Sixties,” Samuel Abramson, ed., in The American Yawp, eds. Joseph Locke and Ben Wright (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2018).

[2] “History Timeline.” Accessed May 7, 2021. https://thefarmcommunity.com/history-timeline/.

[3] Phone Interview with Jen Cort, April 29, 2021.

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6] Martin, Douglas. “Stephen Gaskin, Hippie Who Founded an Enduring Commune, Dies at 79.” The New York Times. The New York Times, July 3, 2014. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/03/us/stephen-gaskin-hippie-who-founded-an-enduring-commune-dies-at-79.html.

[7] Gore, Albert. “Church Group Swaps Views with Gaskin.” The Tennessean. March 13, 1972. https://www.tennessean.com/story/news/2014/07/07/from-the-archive-church-group-swaps-views-with-gaskins/12312875/.

[8] Ibid

[9] Phone Interview with Jen Cort, April 29, 2021.

[10] Ibid

[11] Ibid

[12] Ibid

[13] Martin, Douglas. “Stephen Gaskin, Hippie Who Founded an Enduring Commune, Dies at 79.” The New York Times. The New York Times, July 3, 2014. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/03/us/stephen-gaskin-hippie-who-founded-an-enduring-commune-dies-at-79.html.

[14] Phone Interview with Jen Cort, April 29, 2021.

[15] Ibid

[16] Ibid

[17] The Changeover. Accessed May 8, 2021. https://thefarmcommunity.com/the-changeover/.

[18] Phone Interview with Jen Cort, April 29, 2021.

[19] Ibid


Phone Interview with Jen Cort, April 29, 2021.

Selected Transcript

Q: How long did you live on the Farm and with who?  

A: We started our trip from Seattle to Tennessee when I was three and I arrived either right after I turned 4 or right around that time and we left when I was a junior in high school. And when I went there, I lived with my mom and my sister and my mom’s friend and our bus. 


Q: As a kid on the Farm did you think of the Farm as different than the rest of the world? 

A: Oh yeah, we were raised to think that we were that we were the people in the world who were living the right planning. But I mean, the world was literally on the farm and off the farm and off the farm. People living on the Farm were people who were living the right way, and everyone off the Farm was living wrong, which was really weird to me because. A lot of my friends didn’t have both their parents on the farm, but I was one of the only ones who saw my dad regularly and I knew he was a good person so I didn’t understand that. But we were absolutely raised that we were the only ones living in the right way. 


Q: Did people living on the Farm make it seem like they were there to make an intentional community or were there other intentions for being there? 

A: There were a lot of things that went into the decision making factor. One of the biggest drivers was fleeing the draft, Vietnam. But also Aina May, who’s considering one of the Mothers of midwifery in this country, she really wanted a place to develop my midwifery practices and Steven, our founder, was her husband. I know that there was a couple of years where people scouted out land around the country to try to find where we could go live. And then it was supposed to be that we were creating the ideal life and being very centered on being in touch with nature, working to help people, but very much in a white savior way and very close to the earth. 


Q: How would people that lived on the Farm describe the Farm when they talked about it? 


A: That’s a really good question. And part of why I’m struggling with that question is because I didn’t hear people on the farm talk about it much because we didn’t spend time with people who weren’t from them, so I didn’t hear them describe it up. I know when Nan would take us to our grandparents and my dad’s. She would always just talk about how we were having fun and we were planting and growing our food and we were learning a lot and that you know it was very much the idealized version of it. She certainly never talked about that we were almost always hungry and cold and without shoes. It was always like the girls are learning to ride horses and things like that 

By the way, if we would leave and go to Summertown like where Roberts from, we were told not to talk to him. As kids we didn’t talk to people from who weren’t part of the farm. Often the grownups did because we had companies that made money in other places, but we would even ride our bikes from the farm to the little like general store that was across from Robert’s house and we would be told, you know that we had to go with the grown up and the grown-up was going into and speak for us. We weren’t allowed to go in and speak for them for ourselves. 


Q: Was the farm nationally known at the time you were living there? 

A: It was internationally known. They were on the Donahue show which is, you know, it’s like Oprah then Time magazine in the New York Times there was a of lot of interest in U.S. and we had centers all over the world. Globally, they thought that we were doing right and that we were just people and that we were being raised in the right way. You know we had people from the farm and my family who were invited to go be on Greenpeace. At one point there were famous musicians and scientists, and you know writers who would come and spend time there because we were living in the way that people should live and not being as interested in in what they call the material plane meaning physical things. 


Q: Did people on the farm think of it as like a philosophical thought experiment, or was it like a political statement? 

A: Both. I remember in one of our history classes we always took history from different people’s perspective, like we had Native American history and women’s history, and one of the history classes that we took was. I remember in 5th grade history class was around socialism and communism and how countries like Russia had done it wrong and failed as with communism, but that we were doing it right. 

And so, it was very much like a physical experiment and the centers around the world were designed to go in and do things like run irrigation to towns that didn’t have it and teach women in Guatemala how to nurse and care for their babies? And then it was also a philosophical experiment because Steven was considered to be on a higher level; a higher ordered person than other people. He was a spiritual leader, and he was known internationally for. 

Q: Could you just talk a little bit about what the Farm’s relationship to local was?  


A: Like I said, we didn’t have a lot of experience with people from off the farm. We didn’t meet very often and when we did we, you know, we were fairly protected. My dad, grandpa Dan. He was our postmaster and so he had this truck that had always all post boxes in it and so I would get to go into town with him about once a week to go pick up the Mail and then I would get to go to the store and sometimes I would be able to get a V8 or a banana or something like that. There I would hear people talk about us in a different way. 

I’m not relating it to racism or anything, but the way people talked about us was kind of some of the things you hear people say about black people. As a kid, I distinctly remember somebody saying that they couldn’t believe how articulate I was and that they couldn’t believe I was clean. 

I didn’t know the full extent of it until I went to public school and Robert told me not to tell anyone where I was from, and I had to sneak to get off the farm to go to school. I would leave in the dark, walk a couple of miles in the dark to the bus stop and wait for the bus to come. When I got to school, I started hearing people talk about the farm. Nobody knew I was from there, but they would say things like we didn’t know who our dad was, and that we had free loves and free drugs and all these other things. 

We were called that Devil worshippers which I didn’t know what that meant but I knew it was bad. I didn’t know what they meant because we didn’t talk like that on the farm and then  I was in public school for a year. My friend Peter came to school from the Farm school, so he and I knew, but we didn’t tell anyone, and then everyone, all the kids from the Farm school started to go to our public school. Then everyone knew who we were and all of a sudden, I lost my status at school. I had sleepovers at my friend’s house all the time and then I couldn’t go to people houses after they found out I was from the Farm. I was a cheerleading alternate which at our school is a really big thing but then I was kicked off the team. Teachers started treating me differently because they suddenly knew where I was from. And so it was very hard. 

So, and one other thing about the locals, we had a sign at the end of our road, and we couldn’t have advertisements about where we were because people would want to attack us, throughout my whole childhood because people tried to attack us. 


Q: Did adults on the farm talk about the counterculture and larger political movements outside the farm 

Yeah, so people would come to the farm you couldn’t just walk in and say I’m going to live here. You had to go through this whole process called soaking. You had to live up by the gate for a couple weeks and then hope to be sponsored by somebody and live in their house and then the house would decide if you should get membership. But there were people who came who were fleeing the draft and the local people at the local government had no idea who was there, although they tried to raid us and bust us all that. Steven went to jail for avoiding the draft at one point and they were always trying to imprison him. That’s why we had that holiday 4/20 because they came and said that we were growing weed all over the place, but we weren’t we’re growing ragweed. There were all these helicopters came and landed in our field and people and guns came after us. 

Stephen would leave the farm all the time and he would preach around the world and even preach on TV. He was considered a leader and teacher of the counterculture narrative like you know now if I tell people, I’m from the farm, it’s not uncommon that people know what I’m talking about.  

There was a huge amount of media attention on us. And we had our own school system and local universities would come in and send their teachers to observe us because we were presented as like an idealized version of education. So, we were very well known and very much thought to be one of the leaders of deep thinking and higher-level thinking. 


Q: Do you think the reason that the farm stopped operating the way it did was because of bigger global changes? Or because of smaller things within the community? 

A: It was entirely financial. The thing was that a lot of the people who lived on the farm were highly educated and came from fairly welltodo families, however we did not make enough money to support what we were doing. There was a book publishing company which my uncle ran and you know Hops and Grampa Dan operated the ice cream company, and all those companies were meant to bring money into the farm. And we had a clinic and an ambulance, and doctors and midwives but we did not have surgical facilities and we were going into debt. Michael and my mom worked together to orchestrate what is commonly referred to as the changeover. The changeover is thought to be the end of the farm as it was because. The local bank was saying if you don’t pay back some of these loans, we’re gonna take the land. Which is why the land grant is written in such a weird way that it can never be sold because they’ve made it really complicated to protect it from being seized. 

So, the changeover happened, and Nana was part of it. Auntie Shell was considered a teen elder. We had elders who made our decisions and Stephen blamed Nana and Dan for the fall of the Farm economically and blamed me for the fall of the education system.  

People were told you can stay here, but you’re gonna have to pay rent, which was the first time ever. 

And if your kids go to our school, you have to pay tuition. But Nobody had had any income, like I don’t remember ever seeing a dollar bill when I was little like I had no idea that paper, something that was paper could buy me something. 

When the changeover happened, if you worked for a company on the farm, and you wanted to own that company, you could. The whole reason why we moved from being a commune to what was then referred to as an intentional community is the changeover, and it was entirely financial. 

Steven was verbally abusive tome. 

Nana and Michael were working so long and so hard and they would take a couple quarters and get a thing of M&Ms and divide them up because they knew before anyone else that what they were doing to make the changeover happen. Mom knew, and Michael knew before anyone else that the decisions they were making were going to completely alter the future of the farm. 


Selected Images – Courtesy of Jen Cort

Chasing the American Dream

Chasing the American Dream
by David Ndreca


[NOTE:  Both the subject and the interviewer switch languages as per convenience, therefore, the transcript has been translated and appropriated.]

“Immigrants dreamed the same dreams that immigrants always have–of opportunity in America for themselves and their children” Brands writes in his American Dreams.[1]

In this short piece, I will introduce the story of Marcello Cardillo, an Italian immigrant who came to the United States in 1966 to chase the American Dream. The focus of my story is the description of Cardillo’s journey, which demonstrates the hardships and sacrifices an immigrant had to go through to get to the land of the free and opportunities. Not only will I describe his journey, but also the nature of his success and his consequent ability to help others, who, just like him, dreamed of America. This piece follows the spirit of Brands’ statement, supplementing it and giving it a more sensitive perspective.

In the late 1930’s, Marcello Cardillo’s father, Peppe Cardillo—a U.S. born citizen—was taken back to Italy by his parents and, he was never allowed to come to the U.S. again. In 1940 he was drafted to Africa.[2]Specifically, he was drafted in the Italian Eastern Africa (Africa Orientale Italiana), a complex of territories made up of ancient Italian colonial possessions of Somalia, the Eritrean Colony and the Ethiopian Empire.[3]During the war, Peppe lost a leg and was sent back to Italy. Unable to provide for his family, Peppe sent his young kids to work in the fields but it was not enough to feed a family of seven, with a sick mother and a disabled father.[4]Many Italians who emigrated to the United States during the 20s and 30s eventually returned to Italy, “a rarely noted fact that reveals a fundamental ambivalence about being in the United States.”[5]Known as “soujourners” or “economic opportunists” these immigrants came to the U.S. to make money and return home to buy land and open businesses.[6]

At the age of 16, Marcello Cardillo applied, along with his other two male siblings, for a U.S. visa, but it was denied since their uncle was an outspoken communist. Overtaken by desperation, Marcello, the youngest of them all, undertook a journey to Northern Italy, hoping to make it to Switzerland. In Milan, the young Cardillo had to spend the night under a bridge waiting for the seven o’clock bus to Zurich. He said “It was the end of September but I wasn’t cold, I didn’t feel it. I had six starving people at home and the simple idea that I could provide them with a piece of bread kept me going.”[7]

In Switzerland Cardillo was sheltered by farmers and was allowed to sleep in a barn. His hosts found him a job and also forced him to go to night school. “They told me that if I wanted to work, I had to go to school so I could do something better, perhaps find a job in the city.”Soon, Cardillo moved into a little apartment in Zurich, which was “expensive, but it was worth it” he said, “I could make double of what I made working in the farm, and I could send my family twice as much.”[8]

Two years had gone by, and it was time to go see his family. Cardillo had now purchased a car, a Fiat 600 Vignale Spyder, a car he could only afford without much sacrifice. “I was poor, I gave most of my money to my family, but I had saved a lot and now I could pass as middle-class kid, but I was nowhere close to being like [them].”[9]

While visiting his family at the age of 18, Cardillo got arrested for intentionally avoiding the draft. “The communists of the village had reported me, who else?” he stated, “poverty led people into committing evil actions against each other” he continued. Because of his family’s many connections, Cardillo was granted 24 hours to spend with his parents before he could be taken by the authorities and escorted to a military base. However, Cardillo decided to flee and with the help of his neighbor, a marshal of the Carabinieri (Italian police), he was escorted in the marshal’s car trunk to a train station in Rome. “You must cross the Lugano border tomorrow at 9:15, my brother’s shift starts exactly at 9. I will call him, tell him I sent you. He will help you cross the border” the marshal told Cardillo. Once arrived at his apartment in Zurich, Cardillo no longer felt safe and he knew it wouldn’t have been long before the police would find him. Cardillo shared his concerns with his family in New York, and his aunt promised that she’d help him leave Europe.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 abolished the Quota Acts which were based on national origins and opened the borders to people with skills needed in a developing American economy.[10]It’s 1966, just a year after the passing of the new immigration law. Cardillo’s aunt sought the help of Congresswoman Edna F. Kelly who, according to Cardillo, “called the U.S. consul in Zurich and arranged a work visa” for him (There is no evidence of such correspondence nor is Mr. Cardillo aware of the relationship between his aunt and the Representative Kelly).

Representative Edna Kelly was a Democrat from New York and had different roles in American politics; most importantly, she was known for her contributions to foreign affairs and women’s rights. Kelly served as the Chair of the Subcommittee on Europe and later as the third ranking member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.[11]Many Representatives, including Kelly, favored immigration reform. The House Immigration Committee took the issue of race and racial discrimination as legitimate grounds for supporting a new reform.[12]Most Congressman in support of the immigration reform “represented eastern European interests, either in their ethnically mixed regions, or in their own or biographies.”[13]

“The plane took off and I thought about that good-hearted woman (referring to Rep. Edna Kelly). I wouldn’t be on this plane without her, and without my aunt.” At the age of 20 Cardillo arrived to the United States and was not expecting what he saw. “It was dark and rainy but I couldn’t take my eyes off the high ceilings of the airport” he said. “I was asked my passport by a very tall officer. He asked me many questions to which I didn’t know how to answer, of course, but I do remember very well his big mustache.”[14]The American Dream turned to be a bit bittersweet: the demand for laborers was very high but Italian immigrants had socialist approaches to work organizations and were organized into mutual-aid societies. Italian Socialists provided leadership and protection to garment workers, barbers, and construction workers. The Italian Socialists also built a bridge between Italians and labor organizations such as the Knights of Labor or the Bricklayer’s, Mason’s and Plasterer’s International Union of America of which Cardillo was a part of.[15]

Once settled at his aunt’s house, Cardillo quickly started working as a construction laborer with his uncle but was unsatisfied with the attitude of his superiors. “Our bosses would give us the worst positions, the risky ones and many times they withheld a portion of our salaries to pay for the tools but in reality those filthy bastards were putting that money into their pockets” Cardillo stated.[16]In fact, immigrant workers took, and arguably still take, jobs with higher health and safety risks than native-born laborers. This phenomenon occurs because of the immigrants’ levels of education, language abilities, and different perceptions of job risks. Many immigrants obtained their work authorization directly through their employer and were tied to the company for an extended period of time. Undoubtedly, this leads to a system prone to exploitation but because of the aforementioned factors—particularly those immigrants whom immigration status depended on their employer—laborers did not seek for alternative employment or working rights out of fear of the consequences for them and their families.[17]

At 23 years-old Cardillo had just gotten married and wanted his family to live comfortably and still had parents and siblings to feed back in Italy.  He said “I needed to do something, I was an angry young man that needed opportunities and not a [slave-like operated employment].” With the help of family and friends, Cardillo opened an Italian deli in downtown Brooklyn. There, he employed his wife Adele while he continued to work as a construction laborer. In two-year time, Marcello and Adele Cardillo saved enough money to buy a house in Yonkers, New York.[18]Italians were known for the many entrepreneurs and workers engaged in the manufacturing, construction and food businesses. Italians did not assimilate in America, but they created a cultural pluralism that allowed them to keep their Italian traditions and values while becoming good Americans.[19]

In 1983, Cardillo decided to sell his Italian deli and invest the earnings into a construction business. “It was a Sunday, I remember it because we had just returned from mass at St. John’s church. We sat down outside the fig tree and I [consulted] Adele whether or not we should sell our deli. She did not hesitate and supported my idea without any questions” Cardillo said. Within a few weeks Marcello opens his construction business called M & C, S & D Mason Contractors, Inc. and hires five laborers. It was a hard beginning working as subcontractors in Westchester County, NY, there was a lot of competition, and Cardillo’s English was very limited.  However, only a few years later, Cardillo became one of the most renowned construction businessmen in the county. His projects quickly increased and were comprised from 50 to even 100 condominiums. “I did 50 condominiums for Jack Nicklaus. I know [him] very well, we don’t hangout anymore but I knew him very well” Cardillo proudly said. This business not only allowed him to chase his American Dream, but to help his employess do so as well. He made sure his they were protected by a union and partnered with the Bricklayer’s, Mason’s and Plasterer’s International Union of America, the oldest and still operating trade union in the United States. After 30 years in business, the union awarded him with a plaque of excellence in craftsmanship.[20]

After many years in business, Cardillo started supporting both politicians and people in need. He donated to humanitarian organizations and sponsored campaigns. He held beneficiary events and distributed food to the poor. “After 50 years working with immigrants, [Hispanics], people of color, with everybody, [I can say] for me, working people are all the same. America is the number one [compared to any other country] in the world. I am Italian but America is the number one for me. When you’re born in another country and you come to the United States you got to suffer a lot” Cardillo concluded.[21] 

[1]H. W. Brands, American Dreams: The United States since 1945 (New York: Penguin Books, 2011), 384.

[2]Interview with Mr. Cardillo, March 17, 2018.

[3]Giuseppe Morandini, Enrico Cerulli, and Ugo Leone, “AFRICA ORIENTALE ITALIANA in “Enciclopedia Italiana”,” Treccani, , accessed April 28, 2018, http://www.treccani.it/enciclopedia/africa-orientale-italiana_res-13a6efa4-87e5-11dc-8e9d-0016357eee51_(Enciclopedia-Italiana)/.

[4]I Interview with Mr. Cardillo, March 28, 2018.

[5]Stephen S. Hall, “ITALIAN-AMERICANS COMING INTO THEIR OWN,” The New York Times, May 15, 1983, , accessed April 28, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/1983/05/15/magazine/italian-americans-coming-into-their-own.html?pagewanted=all.


[7]Interview with Mr. Cardillo, April 24, 2018.

[8]Interview with Mr. Cardillo, April 4, 2018.

[9]Interview with Mr. Cardillo, March 17, 2018.

[10][10]H. W. Brands, American Dreams: The United States since 1945 (New York: Penguin Books, 2011), 371.

[11]“Kelly, Edna Flannery,” US House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives, Accessed April 28, 2018.http://history.house.gov/People/Detail/16168.

[12]http://eds.b.ebscohost.com/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=2&sid=e9f5d25d-9e01-4437-887e-4dac1b08ff44%40sessionmgr101page 58

[13]Ibid page 64

[14]Interview with Mr. Cardillo, April 24, 2018.

[15]Wang Xinyang, Economic opportunity, artisan leadership, and immigrant workers: Italian and Chiense immigrant workers in New York City, 18090-1980, (Labor History, 1996) 492-493.

[16]Interview with Mr. Cardillo, March 17, 2018.

[17]http://eds.b.ebscohost.com/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=1&sid=c33255e9-d7cc-420f-8aee-a4cec4dca146%40sessionmgr104page 142-143

[18]Interview with Mr. Cardillo, April 24, 2018.

[19]Mary Brown, Italians of the South Villages, report, ed. Rafaele Fierro (New York City, NY: Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation , 2007), 80, October 15, 2015, accessed April 28, 2018, gvshp.org/blog/2015/10/08/italians-of-the-south-village/

[20]Interview with Mr. Cardillo, April 4, 2018.

[21]I Interview with Mr. Cardillo, March 17, 2018.



–Video recording, Yonkers, NY March 17, 2018.

–Inteview, Yonkers, NY March 28, 2018.

–Phone Interview, April 4, 2018.

–Phone Interview, April 24, 2018.

Selected Transcript

– Video recording

[NOTE: Both the subject and the interviewer switch languages as per convenience, therefore, the use of certain terminology has been appropriated.]


Q. I know your father was a U.S. citizen. What happened to him?
A. My father was born in this country and then my grandpa [took him] back to Italy when he was 12 years-old. He never came back in this country because in 1930 [there was a draft to Africa]. In Africa, he lost his leg and never came back in this country.

Q. Where were you born? When did you come to the United States?
A. I was born in Italy, in the province of Rome, I left [the country] when I was sixteen years-old and went living in Switzerland. In Switzerland I used to go to school. During the day at work and at night I used to go to school. Then in 1966, I came to the United States to find my [wife]. I was 23 years-old when I met my wife, we got married and after a little while, in a year, we bought a house.

Q. How were you able to sustain your family and buy a house?
A. I used to work all over the place to make money. After three years, I bought my first store, an [Italian] deli. During the day, I would work at the construction site and at night at the deli.

[Translated from Italian]

Q. Were there any obstacles that hindered your business?
A. At the time, everything was managed by the mafia but I was never, I mean … How can I say it … A man from the mafia came to collect the “protection fee” but I told him I didn’t make enough money to pay for the protection.


Q. What happened afterwards?
A. After that, I closed the store and opened my [construction] business. I stayed in [the construction] business 33 years. I started with three foremen and ended up with 80, 90, 60. [All] union people, everyone used to be a [union man] and I was glad to be a union man and still am a union man, up to today.

[Translated from Italian]

Q. How big were your projects?
A. All the projects consisted of 50, 100, 80 condominiums depending on the various projects, but they were all new.

Q. I know you’ve worked for famous people.
A. Yes, I did 50 condominiums for Jack Nicklaus. I know [him] very well, we don’t hangout anymore but I knew him very well, we ate together… Then I know many political figures such as Nita Lowey (D-NY 17thDistrict), (former state) Senator Spano. I know many of these judges, they’re my friends because the have respected me as a [working] immigrant and I respect them for who they are.


Q. How did you engage with the community?
A. When I was 26, I started joining [various Italian clubs]. At first, [I joined the] Columbus League, named after Cristoforo Colombo, after that, I joined the Italian-American Organization. After two years, they made me the President of C.I.A.O. A lot of people did not like it because I was an immigrant, I don’t speak very well English. [Afterwards] I started [sponsoring] politicians, I started helping them, helping people and this is my story. After 50 years working with immigrants, any kind of people. I worked with immigrants, Spanish, people of color, with everybody. For me, working people are all the same. For me, America is the number one [compared to any other country]. I am Italian but America is the number one for me.When you’re born in another country and you come to the United States you got to suffer a lot.

[Translated from Italian]

Q. A bizarre question but would you go back to Italy?
A. No. Because I’m planted here and I no longer like the Italian [socio-political] environment. However, Italy is still Italy, it’s beautiful! When you spend your whole life abroad, it’s hard to get used to the Italian environment again.



The Election of 1980: The Start of the Reagan Revolution

By: Mitchell Snyder

In June of 1976, the future of the Republican Party remained uncertain as delegates and candidates alike entered a convention without a candidate. In the months leading up to the gathering, neither President Gerald Ford or Governor Ronald Reagan had secured enough primary wins to claim the coveted nomination outright.[1] Throughout the crowds of delegates, politicians and campaign staff, whispers of uncertainty spread. Among this crowd was a young Charlie Gerow, a college student and an outspoken Reagan loyalist. He was there to support the man he believed would one day sit in the oval office, a belief that would become reality four years later.[2]

Charlie had first met the former California governor in Washington D.C. at private meeting arranged by a colleague he had met while volunteering for the Republican Party in Pennsylvania. Gerow recalls the meeting fondly: “I was still a sophomore or junior in college… I had the chance to meet the future President of the United States for four or five minutes, one on one. Which was really, at that point in my life, the greatest thing that ever happened.”[3] Since that day, he dedicated countless hours workings towards one goal – making Ronald Reagan the President of the United States.

The National Interest, Lee Edwards
President Ford invites then Governor Reagan to address the 1976 Convention.

At the 1976 Republican Convention, Charlie remembers a profound sense of confidence among the Reagan delegation. Despite being behind in both polls and primary wins, the Reagan camp believe they had both the momentum and enough ‘tricks up their sleeves’ to secure the nomination.[4] Unfortunately, this confidence would soon be replaced by a deep sense of disappointment. Despite the Reagan team’s best efforts, the convention had a nominee and it was President Gerald Ford. However, this wasn’t the end of Ronald Reagan’s political life. In an unprecedented moment, President Ford invited his defeated opponent, Ronald Reagan, to address the convention. According to H.W. Brands’s Book, American Dreams, this prompted “…many delegates – ‘eyes glistening with tears,’… to conclude that the convention had chosen the wrong candidate.”[5] Gerow had the same impression as he stood in the convention hall. “…[I] was there in the hall of the house when President Reagan spoke, and heard that tremendous, uplifting, emotional speech which left many of the delegates, kind of, scratching their heads saying, ‘did we just nominate the wrong guy?’”[6]

This belief would be solidified the following day when Ronald Reagan addressed his own mini-convention of supporters and staff following the loss to Ford. Charlie was among crowd who had gathered at the request of their defeated candidate, eager to hear what he had to say. Reagan took this time to thank those who had worked so hard to get him nominated. He told them the fight wasn’t over and the future was bright. In this moment, Charlie knew this wasn’t the end of the Reagan story. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house, but everyone left that room knowing that Ronald Reagan would be back.”[7]

In November 1979, Charlie joined county chairmen, elected officials, and volunteers on a journey from Central Pennsylvania to the Hilton Hotel in Midtown Manhattan to hear Ronald Reagan announce his candidacy for President of the United States. It had been four long years, and much had changed. Charlie was now enrolled at Villanova Law School working towards achieving his J.D. However, his dedication to Ronald Reagan remained firmly in place. He had been invited on this trip by his friend and the Reagan campaign manager for Pennsylvania, Drew Lewis. Drew had played host on the ride down. He had brought them coffee and snacks to help make the long pilgrimage seam more enjoyable. Charlie remembers that night like it was yesterday. “He [Ronald Reagan] introduced that night and played on National television a video announcing his campaign, which, was kind of an edgy piece of campaign technology, at that point… It really went over exceptionally well and paved the way for his 1980 successful campaign for President.”[8] He remembers the pure excitement in the air that night. “The energy level was really incredibly high. Ronald Reagan’s ability to connect with people as the great communicator was really on full display that night in New York… People left highly motivated and highly energized and ready for the tough campaign that was to come…”[9]

CBS News
Reagan stares down Mr. Green after exclaiming “I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green!”

Throughout the primary Reagan was quick to emerge as the front runner in the crowded field of candidates. One such moment that showcased Reagan’s leadership occurred during a primary debate. This debate was a controversial to say the least. The Federal Elections Committee decided that the debate, which was sponsored by a local newspaper, that excluded all other candidates except the front runners (Reagan and Bush), constituted an improper campaign contribution. In response to this, the Reagan’s campaign paid for all the candidates to join the debate to circumvent this ruling.[10] During this debate, the moderator John Green instructed for Reagan’s microphone to be but off prompting the response “I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green!” Gerow remembers this moment as a pivotal part of the primary campaign. He explained “The reason that was so important was voters saw in that moment the definitive notion of who Ronald Reagan was… It didn’t matter what was said at that debate because no one remember one word. They remember that little tinny vignette, that moment in time when Ronald Reagan’s leadership and strength showed through.”[11]

Charlie says it is important to understand that Reagan’s strong responses to attacks on him didn’t end up manifested in grudges. In fact, throughout the campaign he observed Reagan rarely held grudges against his primary opponents. He remembers one incident where “ There had been a dust up with [Senate Majority Leader and Primary Opponent] Howard Baker… there was some hard feelings… [but] Ronald Reagan was getting ready to call Howard Baker about something, and one of his aids said “You can’t do that, you can’t do that” Reagan just gently leaned back and said ‘Oh yeah, I am suppose to be mad at him aren’t I?’”[12]

The Washington Times
President Carter and then candidate Ronald Reagan debate.

Following the primary Charlie Gerow became involved in the campaign in a more official capacity. “After the primaries were concluded in the 1980, I actually got a pay check – which was really important to a young man right out of law school! I went to work as a Political Director, Regional Coordinator for the Reagan Campaign.”[13]  In this position, he worked to build coalitions throughout Pennsylvania to help bring in the needed support to defeat Jimmy Carter. He remembers one of the defining moments that “made a real difference” was the final debate. Gerow explains “The debates were Ronald Reagan’s shinning moments… the race was still neck and neck, many polls showed Jimmy Carter ahead… Ronald Reagan was able to define himself and at the same time contrast himself with Jimmy Carter, particularly in the final debate where he looked in the camera in the eye and said to the American people ‘Are you better off now than you were four years ago?’”[14]

In describing the results of the 1980 election H.W. Brand’s writes “It wasn’t surprising that Reagan won handily.”[15] However, Gerow remembers quite a different feeling among the Reagan team that night. He explains the staff had worked for weeks to prepare for Election Night 1980. Gerow remembers “.. we were all hunkered down with you know computer which, in those days, were almost unheard of… We had all sorts of sophisticated models to check out votes as they came in and make projections etc.” The Reagan staff expected to be up late into the night, believing the election would be extremely close. In fact, in preparation of their anticipated all-nighter they took some time to eat dinner and relax before the stressful night that was coming. However, Gerow explains “By the time we had finished dinner the news was announcing Ronald Reagan had been elected because it was such a landslide. Nobody, I don’t think, really thought it would be as wide a margin as it turned out to be.”[16]

Communities Digital News
President-Elect Reagan and his wife Nancy celebrate their victory!

The following that historic night the Guardian reported “Ronald Reagan will be the next President of the United States. He was heading for the White House early today in what appeared to be a landslide victory in the presidential election.”[17] This marked the end of Reagan’s 1980 campaign but the beginning of what is often referred to as the Reagan Revolution. A time where conservative ideas of lessened regulation, traditional values and smaller government became the staples of the American system.[18] A revolution that was lead by its charismatic spokesman Ronald Reagan. Gerow believes that Reagan’s gracious nature is what made this revolution possible. He was able to connect with voters of different backgrounds and make them feel important. “Folks use to say when you walked into the room with Ronald Reagan you knew he was the most important man in the world and when you left you felt like you were.”[19]


[1]Randy Roberts & David Welky, Ronald Reagan Treasures: The Life of the Great Communicator in Photos & Memorabilia (San Diego: Thunder Bay Press, 2015.) 93-94.

[2] In person interview with Charlie Gerow, Harrisburg, PA, April 25th, 2018.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5]  H.W. Brands, American Dreams: The United States Since 1945 (New York: Penguin Books, 2010), 216.

[6] In person interview with Charlie Gerow, Harrisburg, PA, April 25th, 2018.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] In person interview with Charlie Gerow, Harrisburg, PA, April 18th, 2018.

[10]  Dufresne, Louise. “Ronald Reagan’s Testy Moment in the 1980 GOP Debate.” CBS News. February 11, 2016. Accessed April 26, 2018. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/reagans-testy-moment-in-the-1980-gop-debate/.

[11] In person interview with Charlie Gerow, Harrisburg, PA, April 25th, 2018.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] In person interview with Charlie Gerow, Harrisburg, PA, April 25th, 2018.

[15] H.W. Brands, American Dreams: The United States Since 1945 (New York: Penguin Books, 2010), 217.

[16] In person interview with Charlie Gerow, Harrisburg, PA, April 25th, 2018.

[17] Harold Jackson & Alex Brummer, The Guardian Historical Archieve, A Landslide makes it President Reagan: Aides tell tearful Jimmy Carter that ‘It’s all over.’

[18] H.W. Brands, American Dreams: The United States Since 1945 (New York: Penguin Books, 2010), 232-236.

[19] In person interview with Charlie Gerow, Harrisburg, PA, April 18th, 2018.

Image Citations:

[1] Edwards, Lee. “President Ford Invites Then Governor Reagan to Address the 1976 Convention.” The National Interest.

[2] “Reagan Stares down Mr. Green after Exclaiming ‘I Am Paying for This Microphone, Mr. Green!”.” CBS News.

[3] “President Carter and Then Candidate Ronald Reagan Debate.” The Washington Times.

[4] “President-Elect Reagan and His Wife Nancy Celebrate Their Victory!” Communities Digital News.

Selective Interview Transcript: 

[NOTE: This is a transcript of excerpts from a much longer interview recorded & conducted in person.]

Q: How did you become involved with Ronald Reagan campaign?

A: “I always found President Reagan to be a fascinating person. He was unlike any politician I had ever encountered. He was charismatic, a talented speaker, and more than anything he wasn’t boring to listen to. He didn’t get bogged down in small details, not that he didn’t know them, he just understood that the people wanted to hear something more, something more real.”

Q: What do you mean by real?

A:  “Well, it is something that real Americans can related to. They certainly couldn’t relate to President Carter and his focus on data points and statistics. People wanted someone who they could picture as one of them – President Reagan was certainly able to related to them in that way.”

Q: After the 2016 election, we heard a lot of talk about polling and the role of the media in politics. What was the attitude towards these things on the Reagan Campaign and by Reagan himself?

A: “As expected, our campaign staff certainly kept track of what the polls and pundits where saying. As someone who works with the State Party yourself, you know the importance of staying up to date – or at least I hope you do! [Laughter] However, unlike the average politico or politician now-a-days, President Reagan didn’t guide himself using polls or talking heads. He would spend much of his time speaking with voters about the values and principles that he believed were right and let the chips fall where they may.”

Q: What was the climate in the U.S. prior to the 1980 election?

A: “It wasn’t great. People were significantly unhappy – facing unemployment, inflation and a lack of confident leadership. There were Americans being held hostage abroad, you know the hostages, and many voters believed that their best days were behind them.”

Q: You worked very closely with President Reagan throughout your time as one of his Campaign Aides. What was the most surprising thing you observed about him?

A: “Well, lets see. That’s a tough one – as aides we saw a lot. I would have to say it was how he treated our campaign rivals. You see, he wasn’t like any politician I had met prior. Many of them kept these lists of people who they believed had wronged them. A list of enemies that that could finally get some sort of retribution back from once the election was over. He simply didn’t do this. In fact, I recall one incident during the 1980 campaign when a rival said especially nasty things about the President. Shortly after, he [President Reagan] actually went to call the man about another topic. All of us were shocked – we thought this could clearly only encourage more negative behavior. So, we advised him against it. He responded, ‘Oh yeah, I’m supposed to be mad at him, aren’t I?’ He wasn’t your average politician – he was definitely something special.”

Q: You mentioned, that he spoke with voters about his beliefs. Do you think he did this effectively?

A: “He certainly did. No doubt in my mind – he was a master at it.”

Q: Why do you call him a Master at it?

A: “Well, it was his ability to focus on what others were saying and feeling rather than himself. You could walk into a meeting knowing he was one of the most important men in the world and leave thinking that you were. He would speak to the average voter the same way he spoke to Senators and Congressman – it was extremely admirable. It allowed him to connect with the average American – and I believe helped him earn that nickname ‘The Great Communicator.'”


Hidden Populations

A Nurse’s Experience with the AIDS Epidemic of the 80’s

“The disease cast a long shadow over the gay community. In the first several years of what soon was called the ‘AIDS epidemic,’ a positive diagnosis was tantamount to a death sentence, and the death came at the end of months of wasting and pain.” (H.W. Brands, American Dreams, p. 254)

Interview Subject:

Wendy Waltman, age 54, former nurse who worked with AIDS patients at Beth Israel Hospital in New York from 1986-1989.

In 1985, Wendy Waltman didn’t know what exactly AIDS was, however she had heard of the disease. “The only thing I knew about AIDS before I started nursing school was Ryan White, who was a teenager in 1985 who contracted AIDS through his blood transfusions for hemophilia. “ (1) AIDS had been in New York since the early 70’s, but had evolved into an epidemic in the 80’s. The disease ripped through vulnerable communities, affecting primarily what Waltman describes as the “four h club: homosexuals, heroin abusers, Haitians and hemophiliacs.” (2) Unknown at the time, AIDS was spread through bodily fluids, and was being transmitted through unprotected sex among the homosexual community and the sharing of needles by IV drug abusers. AIDS was a death sentence for those who contracted it in the 80’s, with 19,482 deaths in New York City alone at the end of 1989. (3). Waltman worked at Beth Israel until 1989, before moving to New Hampshire. In his book, American Dreams, H.R. Brands describes 1985 through 1987 as a turning point in the AIDs epidemic, describing “the fear diminished, as science and medicine made progress against the disease”(4). Brands credits events like the National AIDS memorial quilt, the infection of Ryan White and Rock Hudson and the approval of ATZ as decreasing fears around the diseasing and ending the epidemic. However, Waltman recalls her time in Beth Israel as a time of “hysteria” (5). Her oral history challenges the national narrative of the AIDS epidemic, specifically showing how New York City felt the full force of the AIDS epidemic through the late 1980’s.

Waltman was only 19 years old when she started as a student nurse in Beth Israel hospital in 1985, and started working with AIDS patients in 1986, in the heat of the AIDS epidemic in New York. At the beginning of her nursing term, despite being 6 years into the epidemic, she nor anyone else she knew understood what exactly AIDS was and how it was spread. “When I started in 1985 we knew what AIDS was we weren’t sure what caused it, they weren’t sure how it was transmitted. The blood screening wasn’t even perfected until 1985.” (6) Beth Israel was located right in the heart of the epidemic, due to it being situated by Greenwich Village, the heart of the gay community in the 80’s and it having the second largest meth treatment facility in the world at the time. (7)


New York Memorial Quilt on Central Park’s Great Lawn, June 25th 1988. Image courtesy Bettmann/CORBIS


It’s understandable why historians such as Brands portray the AIDS epidemic ending in the late 80’s. The approval of ATZ in 1987 was a major milestone in the fight against AIDS, as it was the first drug to be clinically approved for AIDS treatment. Brands described the drug as “expensive but broadly effective.” (8). Even before with death of Rock Hudson in 1985, President Reagan had started to speak about AIDS publicly (9). Reagan’s Surgeon General released a report in 1987 that described AIDs patients as safe to interact with in an everyday capacity. (10) At the national level that Brands focuses on the condition of the AIDs community seemed to be rapidly improving from the period between 1985 and 1989.

However, the increased awareness of AIDS as a disease did not translate into better conditions or understanding for AIDS patients in New York from 1985 to 89. While on a national and federal level AIDS patients seemed to be garnering sympathy, the homosexual community that Beth Israel Hospital struggled greatly. Waltman remembers most of her AIDS patients being young, gay men. (11). “They were on their own, a lot of their families had turned their back on them and a lot of them were still afraid of losing their job in the workplace.” (12). While by 1985 the cause of AIDS had been identified, the concern that AIDS could still spread in ways that hadn’t been discovered yet was still very prevalent in common culture. (13) AIDS was described as some as the “gay disease”, and elements of the Christian right believed the gay community was, “getting what they deserved”. (14) The hysteria around the disease was not just one of health concern, but also rather the center of a cultural battle that made it difficult to bring AIDS patients into the light.

Advertisement for protest of AZT prices at the NIH- Courtesy of Liam Scheff

Further, the federal response to the AIDS epidemic proved slow. Despite AIDs research getting a major increase in funding past 1985, with Reagan declaring it a “top priority”, the actual treatment of AIDS patients during the period of 85 to 89 proved difficult. (15) These difficulties stemmed from a lack of nurses and a lack of published, uniform knowledge around AIDS. AIDS research hadn’t made its way into the nursing manuals taught to student nurses like Waltman in 1985, as the information was “too much and coming too fast” for nurses to be taught. (16)  During the period of 85 to 89, there was no widely available, cheap medication for AIDS. The first cocktail widely used, AZT, cost around 8,000 to 10,000 dollars. Beth Israel patients often didn’t have the regular insurance required to afford the cocktail. (17) AIDS patients are nursing intensive patients. A HIV patient develops AIDS due to an opportunistic infection such as Kaposi sarcoma or pneumonia. This meant that nurses not only had to treat the AIDS infection, but often other nursing intensive symptoms as well. (18) On one floor in Beth Israel, a nurse was responsible for up to 18 patients, all-suffering from AIDS. (19) Beth Israel and other hospitals were unprepared for the epidemic, and faced an increasing AIDS population.

Wendy describing treating AIDS patients:


The lack of beds combined with the increasing patient load meant that there were more patients than beds. Patients were laid out the floor of rooms so that the staff of Beth Israel could attempt to treat the influx. Despite the best efforts of the nursing and medical staff, Waltman felt that, “no matter how much you were running around doing something, there was always somebody not getting what they needed.” (20) Beth Israel did attempt to improve the quality of care for AIDS patients in the hospital. An AIDS floor was developed, and a specialized AIDS intensive care unit was made in 1988. (21). However AIDS remained a terminal disease for the majority of young homosexual men who were patients at Beth Israel. Through no fault of the medical staff of the hospital, Waltman doesn’t “remember any one of my patients who I treated long term surviving.” (22)

Beth Israel is an extreme example in the AIDS narrative, as is New York in general. AIDS did not hit other areas of the US quite as hard as New York, with cities like San Francisco having better success in treating the outbreak.  But by looking at New York from 85 to 89, the AIDS narrative is expanded. Despite the social and medical developments talked about by Brands, the AIDS community in New York was not experiencing a subsidence of fear, or an improvement of large scale in medical treatment. When looking at an epidemic, examining national policy and events gives the impression of uniformity of experience for those affected across the county. This process can erase the experiences of not only the professionals who worked in communities ravaged by the disease well after the end of the traditional narrative, but also those who either died or lost loved ones as a result. This oral history challenges the story that Brands and other historians tell about HIV when they present the epidemic in a national context, extending the timeline and humanizing the issues.

Aids Patient Bobbi Campbell, Courtesy of PBS










  1. Interview with Wendy Waltman, Lexington, KY. March 28th, 2018.
  2. Interview with Wendy Waltman, Lexington, KY. March 28th, 2018.
  3. “IV Epidemiology and Field Services Program Table 3. AIDS Diagnosis and Persons Living with HIV/AIDS by Year, Pre-1981 to 2014, New York City” (New York City HIV/AIDS Annual Surveillance Statistics 201430,2015).
  4. W. Brands, American Dreams: The United States Since 1945 (New York: Penguin Books, 2010), 256.
  5. Interview with Wendy Waltman, Lexington, KY. March 28th, 2018.
  6. Interview with Wendy Waltman, Lexington, KY. March 28th, 2018.
  7. Interview with Wendy Waltman, Lexington, KY. March 28th, 2018.
  8. W. Brands, American Dreams: The United States Since 1945 (New York: Penguin Books, 2010), 257.
  9. “Reagan, Regulation and the FDA: The US food and Drug Administrations Response to HIV/AIDS 1980-90.” (Canadian Journal Of History 44, no. 3, 2009). 467-487.
  10. “Surgeans General Report on Aquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome”. (US. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, Office of the Surgeon General, Rockville, MD 1986.) 5.
  11. Interview with Wendy Waltman, Lexington, KY. March 28th, 2018.
  12. Interview with Wendy Waltman, Lexington, KY. March 28th, 2018.
  13. Interview with Wendy Waltman, Lexington, KY. March 28th, 2018.
  14. Halkitis, P. N. The AIDS Generation : Stories of Survival and Resilience. (Oxford: Oxford University Press. (2014). 30.
  15. W. Brands, American Dreams: The United States Since 1945 (New York: Penguin Books, 2010), 256.
  16. Interview with Wendy Waltman, Lexington, KY. March 28th, 2018..
  17. Interview with Wendy Waltman, Lexington, KY. March 28th, 2018.
  18. Interview with Wendy Waltman, Lexington, KY. March 28th, 2018.
  19. Interview with Wendy Waltman, Lexington, KY. March 28th, 2018.
  20. Interview with Wendy Waltman, Lexington, KY. March 28th, 2018.
  21. “Mount Sinai Beth Israel History.” Mount Sinai Health System.
  22. Interview with Wendy Waltman, Lexington, KY. March 28th, 2018.



-Phone Call, Lexington, KY, March 28th, 2018.


Selected transcript:

From phone:

Q:So you were working with AIDS patients during that period between 1985 and 1989?

A: Well yes, the thing is in 1985 when I started there there wasn’t an AIDS floor. All of the AIDS patients were mixed in on different floors. Not in the same floors but in one floor there would be, for example, a room with two AIDS patients next to a room with two elderly patients. There wasn’t a specific floor at that point for the AIDS population.

Q: Why was that?

A: In about 1981 was the first patient in Beth Israel who was diagnosed. I don’t even think they had the name AIDS yet. There was the overlying GRID, gay related immuno-deficiency syndrome. When I started in 1985 we knew what AIDS was we weren’t sure what caused it, they weren’t sure how it was transmitted. The blood screening wasn’t even perfected until 1985. It was sort of that the patients presented themselves. It was a 900 bed hospital, of course they would have to go to a medical ward. There was no ward to keep it separate.

Q: So you didn’t know how it was transmitted (when you started working at Beth Israel) in 85?

A: No one knew how it was transmitted. They weren’t sure how it was transmitted. It was still at the point were they didn’t know if kissing transmitted it, if it was transmitted through salvia. No one knew how this was transmitted, none of the infectious disease doctors knew either

Q: Can you describe some of the difficulties with working with AIDS patients during the period you worked with them?

A: When I started in the fall of 1985, maybe 15 to 20 percent of a regular floor would be AIDS. By the time I graduated the two year medical program it was around 40-50. So it was a massive change in a little amount of time. This was before any of the vaccinations. Realize that this was also in the middle of a nursing health crisis and these patients were incredibly complex to have on the floor. None of the staffing was changed to help out in that way. It was a really hard time to be a nurse on any floor. In 1986 when a young man came in there would be several things they would present with. Just because you were HIV positive didn’t mean you had the disease, you had to have something in addition to it, an opportunistic infection. None of this in 1985 was written in books. This was not in the normal one thousand page nursing tome that you had. It was all so fresh and coming so fast. The patients who came in were HIV positive and had an opportunistic infection. These were nursing intensive patients. One of the infections that many patients had was kaposi sarcoma which was a rare skin cancer. The other thing they would have was bloody diarrhea, diarrhea which is actually unimaginable to the normal person. You’d have a patient with both of these things going on the same time. If you were a registered nurse you had a third of the floor to deal with on top of this. If you were on evening or night shift you had half of the floor. This was before the specialized AIDS unit opened up. You’d have anywhere between 16 to 18 patients. On top of these complicated AIDS patients you’d have your normal patients who you also need to take care of. There just wasn’t enough help. I personally felt that I wasn’t doing enough, no matter how much you were running around doing something, there was always somebody not getting what they needed.

Q: So the patients weren’t getting the treatment they needed?

A: Nobody was getting the treatment they needed. There wasn’t an effective nursing to staff ratio. Everyone was trying and nobody was getting enough. You had interns who were just out of medical school pulling 24-36 hour shifts. Sometime as a nurse in New York City you would call a intern for help and they had already been up 24 hours. It was difficult to put it mildly.





Fighting the Epidemic- Grass-root HIV support groups in the 80’s

By Sam Drabkin

Time magazine cover on AIDS (1986)

Time magazine cover on AIDS (1986)

Catherine Drabkin began working as the director of the Charlottesville AIDS support Group when she was 26. Fresh out of graduate school, Drabkin started in 1989 and would act as the director there for there years.  “In the fall of 89 I started…it was my first real job out of college” Drabkin explained “the position was the first staff position that they hired, they had gotten a grant from the state of Virginia…It was really at the time when federal funding was becoming available for AIDS organizations.” [1]  This memory of federal involvement in the struggle against the HIV epidemic helps document historian H.W. Brand’s insights about the evolving struggle over AIDS funding. Brand describes how President Reagan broke his silence on the issue in the mid 80’s explaining “Reagan’s administration had tried to ignore the disease….But as the gravity of the disease became undeniable, Reagan changed his position.  He increased the federal budget for AIDS research, to half a billion dollars over 5 years.” [2] Drabkin however also provides more detailed information about the crisis in its later years, and thus provides a narrative of the changing of the disease for the federal government and in the public eye.

While it certainly existed in the 1970’s it was not until 1981 that AIDS was identified as disease in itself. Victoria Hardin documents this in her book AIDS at 30 explaining ” In December 1981 two physicians at Duke University reported a case of the new disease in The Lancet and proposed the name ‘gay compromise syndrome’…the first reported cases all described gay males and indelibly linked AIDS in the minds on many as a disease of homosexual men” [3] This connection between AIDS and the gay community, despite the disease’s ability to affect any demographic, would shape the federal and social response to the disease in the coming years.  The equivalence of AIDS with the gay community made the conservative Reagan administration sluggish in its response to say the least.  According to James Gillet, “The institutional response to AIDS in the early 1980’s was essentially nonexistent given the gravity of the epidemic, despite an awareness of AIDS among those in the CDC and the mass media”[4]  However despite the silence people were getting sick people were getting sick, and dying. By the end of 1982 an estimated 618 people had died. By the end of 1983 that number had more than tripled [5] Despite the rising death tolls and media coverage at this point Drabkin didn’t pay much attention to AIDS during these first years. “I didn’t think about AIDS very much before I started working there [The AIDS Support Group]” said Drabkin “I was still in college”[6] The victims of this disease however did not sit idly as this new threat ravaged their community. Soon AIDS victims, or as they preferred people with AIDS, began marching and forming the support groups that would be precursors to ones like the one Drabkin directed.  In 1984 the death toll rose by another 3000 more than doubling the deaths in 1983.[7]  The enormous casualties combined with the death of famous movie star, and friend of Reagan, Rock Hudson finally became too much for the institution to ignore.  Hudson’s death marked a turning point in federal policy on AIDS and funds were made available for research and treatment.  The battle however was far from over, as Brands notes. “Answers came slowly. The causative agent was identified…,” he writes, “but an effective treatment, let alone a cure, was elusive. The death toll mounted to 12,000 per year in 1986 and 20,000 in 1988.”[8]

This was the climate in the U.S. when Drabkin began working as director of the AIDS Support Group. In fact, this new attention by the Reagan Administration was what allowed Drabkin to begin working at the support group. “I came in on one grant but we applied for others and suddenly we had, actually a good bit of money that we could use to do, not only services to people with AIDS but also educational outreach for prevention.” Drabkin recalled “The organization ended up growing really fast so I moved from a volunteer coordinator position to a executive director position and hired additional staff members.”[9]  The mid to late 1980’s also brought another sign of hope: AZT. In 1987 an anti-HIV drug called AZT was approved by the Food and Drug Administration to use in America. [10]  However the drug, while effective, was expensive and often unavailable. The price for AZT in 1989 was nearly $200 days for a seventeen day supply and to be fully effective it had to be taken at that rate for the rest of the patient’s life.  The cost amounted to nearly $10,000 a year. This price made it nearly impossible for many people with AIDS.  One scholar notes, “AIDS activists protested that Burroughs Wellcome was ‘profiteering’ on the misery and death the disease caused…Perhaps the most galling aspect of Burroughs Wellcome’s price tag for AZT was that taxpayers had essentially funded development of the drug but had no control over the pricing.”   Eventually the tireless actions of the activist group ACT UP applied enough pressure on Burroughs Wellcome that they were forced to significantly lower the prices in 1989 to “approximately $6500.”[11]  Even with these lower prices however the prices remained out of reach for many people with AIDS  “I remember when it came out,” Drabkin stats.  “You know I think it was still considered pretty experimental. I think there was probably a sense of relief that, you know, you had more than 18 months to live but it wasn’t really seen as a cure. It was certainly something people fought eagerly to get a hold of…It was really expensive and the organization would sometimes try to help people get the funds,” but she adds, “I remember that it was very hard to get.” [12]   This moment highlights an interesting dichotomy within the anti-AIDS movement between local support groups and more action oriented activist groups. Drabkin recalls, “You know there was a big AIDS group up in Washington D.C. and they did marches where the organizers would intentionally get arrested and you know that’s not really in my personality [laughs] I don’t know think it probably did make a difference, especially for funding that came through but I felt like I could serve better by keeping my head down and just working in the local community” [13]

One of the largest obstacles facing Drabkin’s local work was the stigma that had been attached to AIDS since its discovery. Homophobia had long been mixed with fear of the disease and many spoke of the epidemic as if it were god willed. Brands reports, “By the time the disease had a new name-AIDS-it had been labeled the ‘gay disease’. Christian conservatives pointed the finger of blame at the regnant liberalism. ‘Aids is God’s judgement on a society that does not live by His rules,” Jerry Falwell intoned.” [14]  These feelings was the first thing Drabkin addressed when interviewed in a 1989 newspaper article saying “All people are possible AIDS victims —  when you rely on a stereotype you think you’re safe from the disease, but you aren’t.”  26 years later in 2015 Drabkin gave a more complete explanation aboiut the stigma suffered by people with AIDS. “I think in the public view, at least in our community, was that it was something that happened to ‘those’ people. So there really was a stigma. When we ran our support groups we never revealed the location where they were meeting because we didn’t want someone to, you know, come into either spy on who was coming in to the support group and broadcast the members or sort of harass them…I think certainly in the three years I was there was less of a stigma, and within another 3 to 5 years it [acceptance] became much more prevalent as the disease spread outside of the gay community.”[16]

When asked what it was like to work in AIDS relief Drabkin admitted that, while rewarding, it was exhausting work. “We were constantly working with people who were dying…there was the pressure there, that was always there….I was pretty young, I guess i didn’t appreciate what sort of toll that could take on a person, or a staff. So when I quit I had the excuse that I was pregnant and that I was going to stay at home and have the baby but I think there was a certain amount of relief because it had been a stressful job, and that wasn’t something you really acknowledged.” [17]

[1] Phone interview with Catherine Drabkin, March 25, 2015.

[2]  H.W. Brands, American Dreams: The United States Since 1945 (New York: Penguin Books, 2010), 255.

[3] Victoria Hardin, AIDS in 30 (Dulles, Virginia: Potomac Books, 2012), 23.

[4] James Gillet, A Grassroots History of the AIDS/HIV  Epidemic in North America (Spokane, Washington: Marquette Books LLC), 9.

[5] “Thirty Years of HIV/AIDS: Snapshots of an Epidemic.” AmfAR. Accessed May 1, 2015. http://www.amfar.org/thirty-years-of-hiv/aids-snapshots-of-an-epidemic/.

[6] Drabkin

[7] AmfAR

[8] Brands. 255.

[9] Drabkin

[10] Brands. 256.

[11] Hardin. 135-136

[12] Drabkin


[14] Brands. 254.

[15] Clarke, Christy. “Education Provokes Community AIDS Awareness.” The Cavalier Daily [Charlottesville] 11 Apr. 1989: 6. Print.

[16] Drabkin

[17] Ibid


Understanding US History Through Political TV Ads

KennedyThe Living Room Candidate website, courtesy of the Museum of the Moving Image, has collected televised presidential campaign advertisements from 1952 to the present day. They offer a great window for understanding some key trends in US history since 1945.

Here is a pioneering TV ad from the 1952 campaign, presented in what was then popular movie newsreel style, for the Republican campaign of Dwight D. Eisenhower.  Think carefully about what the commercial is emphasizing –and also what it omits.

Compare that 1952 effort to this more polished, 1960 John F. Kennedy campaign ad, designed to invoke some of the more popular TV jingles of the 1950s.

Perhaps the most famous (or infamous) ad in the history of modern presidential campaigns appeared as a paid advertisement on TV only once –the so-called “Daisy ad” from 1964. Students should be able to explain what this ad was about, and why it was so powerful and controversial.

The Richard Nixon campaign in 1968 revolutionized the use of TV commercials in presidential contests, relying on them more than any other previous campaign organization. These two notable examples show some of the new techniques of advertising and also help highlight the shift in national climate since 1952.

The foreboding nature of those 1968 ads helps explain the strategy of calculated optimism behind this biographical short from the 1976 Jimmy Carter campaign.  What’s also especially useful about this effort is how it captures several political and social trends from modern US history.

In the 1984 presidential election, Ronald Reagan won 49 out of 50 states. This commercial, known popularly as the “Morning Again in America” ad helps illustrate the broad appeal of the reelection campaign –and the sophisticated selling techniques of modern presidential politicking.

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