Joan Tisch: Face to Face With a Living Legend

"I have known several people afflicted with AIDS, some of whom have died, and I would like to be of service." ~ Joan Tisch

Thirty years into the AIDS epidemic, what do you say when you gaze directly into the eyes of a living legend, an icon of enormous generosity and humanity who has had so much impact on so many lives? There are one thousand butterflies fiercely beating in your stomach, a tear forming in your left eye; you get yourself together to proudly say: "Joan Tisch, I am honored to present to you the Inaugural Judy Peabody Humanitarian Award." And to the audience that rises in an ovation of applause you say: "Live like her."

Joan Tisch, who has dedicated so much of herself to working toward a world without AIDS, was honored on March 7th by GMHC and a room full of prominent New Yorkers. The inaugural Judith Peabody Humanitarian Award was presented to Joan Tisch for her philanthropic generosity and dedication to a world without AIDS. Both Judith Peabody, for whom the award is named, and Joan Tisch were groundbreakers in volunteerism and philanthropic support regarding AIDS in the earliest years of the epidemic up through the present. Through hands-on volunteerism they have been model and beacon of light to HIV/AIDS volunteerism.

When Joan Tisch walked through the doors of GMHC in 1986, no one could have predicted the impact she would have on our organization, let alone the influence she would exercise as one of the world's most visible AIDS advocates and philanthropists. She was simply a prospective volunteer, who on her application wrote: "I have known several people afflicted with AIDS, some of whom have died, and I would like to be of service."

After years of answering phones, stuffing envelopes, and helping clients navigate incomprehensible medical bills, GMHC's most famous anonymous volunteer was asked to consider a position on the board of directors. Joan agreed and in doing so forever changed the course of GMHC's future.

Joan Tisch wielded both heart and sword in the fight against AIDS. She connected those with the means to help with those who needed it most. And when a potential donor presented reticence or uncertainty, she used her wit, charm, and passion for the cause to secure the vital funds GMHC needed to fight AIDS.

It was during her tenure on the board that GMHC grew from a grassroots nonprofit to the world's most respected AIDS service and advocacy agency. Although she would refuse any credit for this coming-of-age, it is undeniable that GMHC would not be the robust organization it is without her intrepid leadership and stalwart generosity.

Indeed, 15 years ago, it was Joan's gift -- one of the largest ever made to an AIDS services organization -- that made GMHC's home on 24th Street a reality. And now as we prepare to say goodbye to the current Tisch Building, the move to our new home on West 33rd Street is possible only because of her unfaltering support of our mission, our work, and our clients: those most directly affected by HIV/AIDS. Joan is right there with us, counting the days 'til our move to a new home and the expansion of GMHC services.

When Joan first came to GMHC, it was with a "whatever-it-takes " kind of attitude. And that is just what she gave. With candor, diligence, and her characteristic straightforwardness, it seems that Joan never said no to GMHC. From the well being of an individual's battle with their HIV status to the growth of the donor base to the very core of GMHC's institutional health, there has never been a resource builder such as Joan Tisch.

A woman of legendary passion and devotion to HIV/AIDS advocacy, Joan has blazed a path forward for all those who fight the ignorance and stigma still driving the spread of the epidemic. We are honored to call her our matriarch and grateful that of the thousands of supporters she has brought to GMHC, she has also shared with us her family. Her husband Bob was a great champion of Joan's work, and her children Laurie, Jonathan, and Steve have created their own traditions of extraordinary, hands-on philanthropy.

Today, it seems that fewer people are " interested in AIDS." Fortunately, with the impact of anti-retroviral treatment, the lifespan of those who are HIV+ has been significantly extended. HIV is more and more viewed as a chronic disease rather than as a death sentence. But, it takes the likes of Joan Tisch to see beyond a devastating past into the possibilities of the future--- to continue the fight against AIDS and its underlying causes--and to fight against the stigma that still keeps so many living in the shadows.

Joan Tisch is a unique gift to all of us and while we cannot all be Joan -- we can follow her path. Walk the walk to fight AIDS and love life.