OBITUARY: Larry Kessler

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Photo courtesy of Fenway Health.
Photo courtesy of Fenway Health.

Larry Kessler, a pioneering force in HIV/AIDS advocacy, died at the age of 81 on February 1st, leaving behind a legacy that shaped the course of the fight against HIV/AIDS. He passed away peacefully in his residence at NewBridge on the Charles.

Kessler was renowned for his unwavering dedication and commitment, particularly during the early stages of the AIDS crisis. A beacon of hope and compassion, Kessler tirelessly worked to enact change and save lives. He was instrumental in establishing the AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts, serving as a guiding force from the 1980s through the early 2000s. Kessler played a pivotal role in raising awareness, delivering essential services, and advocating for policy reforms.

His advocacy efforts were instrumental in the expansion of Medicaid in Massachusetts, providing vital support to HIV patients facing financial hardship. Kessler spearheaded initiatives such as the AIDS Walk (now Strides for Action), mobilizing resources for HIV-related services. His advocacy encompassed a wide range of policy objectives, including securing increased funding for HIV research, treatment, and prevention, championing non-discrimination legislation to safeguard the rights of individuals living with HIV, and promoting access to affordable healthcare and medications. He also tirelessly campaigned for comprehensive sex education and the implementation of harm reduction strategies, leaving an indelible mark on the fight against HIV/AIDS in Massachusetts and beyond.

Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1942, Kessler's early life saw him working as both an ironworker and a seminarian. In his twenties, he immersed himself in civil rights and anti-poverty activism, founding and directing Project Appalachia in the late 1960s, and co-founding and directing Pittsburgh's Thomas Merton Center in the early 1970s. Upon relocating to Boston, he contributed to the expansion of the Walk for Hunger into Project Bread while working at the Paulist Center.

In the early 1980s, while running his own business, Copley Flair, and serving on the Board of Fenway Community Health Center (now Fenway Health), Kessler was instrumental in the formation of a special committee dedicated to addressing the emerging HIV/AIDS crisis. This committee evolved into AIDS Action, an independent nonprofit with Kessler at its helm as Executive Director and inaugural staff member.

Appointed to the National Commission on AIDS in 1988, Kessler continued his advocacy on a national scale, responding to the failures of the government response to the HIV epidemic. He transitioned to the role of Founding Director of AIDS Action in 2002, retiring in 2006. Following a merger in 2013, AIDS Action reunited with Fenway Health. In the same year, Kessler was entrusted with leading the Boston Living Center by Victory Programs, providing vital resources and support to people living with HIV. He retired for the second time in 2015.

Reflecting on their relationship, Dana Ellsmore, Kessler's husband, told the Boston Globe that Kessler's "thoughtfulness, his kindness, his patience. We both came to the conclusion that there was no mistake that we crossed each other's path initially and we both felt like we were each other's kindred spirit and soulmate."

A gathering to celebrate Larry Kessler's life will be announced.