TELLURIDE – When most of us think about diplomat Richard Holbrooke, whose long foreign service career ended with his December 2010 passing, it is for several reasons.
For some, it is for the critical role Holbrooke (most recently the Obama administration’s special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan) played in ending the bloody, three-year Bosnian war, as the chief architect of the 1995 Dayton peace accords.
For others, it is the part he played as a dear friend to Mountainfilm in Telluride, helping his son, Mountainfilm Festival Director David Holbrooke, raise the town’s annual Memorial Day mountaineering/global consciousness-raising/world-events film festival to international stature.
Still others will remember him as a part-time local homeowner who came to Telluride to get away from the Beltway and to spend time with his grandchildren.
What few may realize, however, is the vital and unmatched role Richard Holbrooke played in raising the alarm over the HIV/AIDS pandemic, as not only a health issue but one of global security – an alarm so loud that it ultimately changed the way governments around the globe address the issue.
For that reason, when attendees of the Telluride AIDS Benefit Gala Fashion Show open their programs on the evening of Saturday, March 5, they will find a tribute to Holbrooke, to whom the evening is being dedicated.
“He is the one that declared AIDS in Africa a national security problem and brought it to the forefront,” said former Telluride AIDS Benefit Executive Director Amy Kimberly, who fostered Holbrooke’s relationship with the organization.
At a time when world governments were largely ignoring the impacts of the disease, “He was brave enough to say this is going to affect the whole world,” she said.
This is only the second time such an honor has been bestowed during the 17-year history of TAB. The first time was in 2008 when TAB honored longtime local benefactor Chuck Kroger following his passing. The honor is reserved, said current Executive Director Stash Wislocki, “for those who have given the absolute most to TAB, the community, and the fight against AIDS.”
“Over the years [Holbrooke] had been an integral part of TAB,” constantly reminding both the non-profit organization’s staff and its board of directors, of the importance of their work, Wislocki said.
“He worked with us to make sure that people were aware of the global scale of AIDS,” he continued, describing the issue as “a driving force” in Holbrooke’s career.
In Telluride, however, Richard Holbrooke didn’t just preach to the choir. He also used his position as a Telluride Foundation board director to get his message across.
“He was a big supporter of ours through the Telluride Foundation board,” said TAB Treasurer Ron Gilmer, who also served with Holbrooke on the Telluride Foundation board.
“He always expressed his interest in our organization.”
Holbrooke first made his mark on the devastating global scourge in January 2000 when, as chairman of the UN Security Council, he arranged its first ever session on a health issue, one that ultimately redefined the AIDS discussion.
“Of all the major problems we face today – wars, famines, racial conflict, terrorism, nuclear weapons – I believe the greatest problem comes from AIDS,” he told The New York Times.
Holbrooke’s inspiration came from a 10-country tour of Africa he had taken with his wife the previous year, he told the public affairs television program Frontline in a 2005 interview.
“I didn't need the trip to Africa to know AIDS was a huge problem, but you have to see it on the ground firsthand in detail to understand all its dimensions,” he said. “Watching kids sleep in the gutters in Lusaka, [Zambia], knowing that they will become either prostitutes or rape victims, either getting or spreading the disease, because there's no shelter for them, and that the government is doing nothing about it, makes a powerful impression on you. We saw that firsthand.”
“He was a force of nature and he used that force to shape our world for the better,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said of Holbrooke during a memorial service for the diplomat at the agency’s New York City headquarters last week.
Five months after Holbrooke departed the UN he became the unpaid President and Chief Executive Officer of the Global Business Council on HIV and AIDS in June, 2001. Now expanded to also include tuberculosis and malaria, the group coordinates business efforts in response to those diseases.
“He got all these companies from the NBA to Boeing to commit not only money but resources to the issue,” said Holbrooke’s son, David.
“What I think my father understood earlier than most people is what it meant politically and economically… It is so destabilizing that alliances and treaties, all these things were in jeopardy because of it.”
But Holbrooke’s global perspective could also be honed to the hyper-local as it was in 2001 when he spoke at the TAB Gala Fashion Show after helping pave the road for the group’s important work in Telluride’s “sister city” of Manzini, Swaziland.
Over the years TAB has helped feed Manzini’s hungry, restored running water, built bathrooms and sent orphans to school with funding generated by its activities here in Telluride.
“He thought it was a very important thing,” Gilmer said, describing TAB viewed through Richard Holbrooke’s eyes.
“He was amazed that a small community like this could put on such a phenomenal event…and he was impressed at how the whole community came out to support it.”
For Gilmer, whose former partner, fashion designer Robert Presley’s escalating medical costs associated with his battle against HIV/AIDS inspired the first benefit in 1994, the tribute to Holbrooke is significant.
“HIV/AIDS is still a major problem,” he said. “There are going to be three million infected this year alone, but we don’t talk about it anymore.”
In fact, the US infection rate of 56,000 people per year has not changed over the past 10 years, he noted.
“It’s important,” he said. “It’s a great thing that we’re honoring him this year.”
“My father loved the Telluride AIDS Benefit,” said David Holbrooke, noting that his father began attending the gala fashion show years before he ever did.
“He loved Telluride so much and he loved that this incredible show was happening here.
“I’m glad they’re doing this,” he continued. “It means a lot to me and my family.”