The Unforgettable Way Ryan White Was Buried (Excerpt)

Sources: JC Online – By  Will Higgins | Edited By – All Things Michael

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The preparations involved 48 hours of mad scrambling.

A grand piano was rented and tuned for Elton John. A secure waiting room was chosen for first lady Barbara Bush. An entryway without a canopy into the Second Presbyterian Church was identified so that Michael Jackson, who avoided canopies, would enter.

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And Ryan White, the frail Indiana teenager who had become the heroic and heartbreaking face of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, was laid out in a coffin of knotty pine.

TV trucks lined up on Meridian Street for a half mile.  Fifteen hundred mourners were seated in the pews.

Then one final kerfuffle. A member of Jackson’s entourage approached a pair of harried, sleep-deprived funeral organizers with news that the King of Pop needed to use the restroom.

The funeral went smoothly. Mostly. The first lady’s limousine ran into a church wall. A Chicago TV reporter had to be threatened with removal if he didn’t stop shouting questions at arriving mourners. During John’s solo, a “People Magazine” photographer unexpectedly popped up from behind John’s piano, startling the Secret Service. “Do you have him in your sights?” an agent was heard to whisper into his radio.

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Before the funeral, Secret Service agents sequestered the first lady in a small room off the sanctuary. But Bush, wanting to talk to Ryan’s grieving mother, slipped out of the room, says Minier, the Marion County Sheriff’s Office spokesman who handled the event’s media relations.

Bush found Jeanne White-Ginder, and the two women sat, talked privately and connected deeply. “Mrs. Bush told me about her little girl,” White-Ginder says (The Bushes had a daughter, Robin, who died of Leukemia at 3). “She had lost a little girl to cancer, and I’d not known that. I really connected with her. She was the first lady, but she was a mother. It felt like I was close to her heart.”

In the end, in spite of numerous logistical hurdles and a tight time frame, “we pulled it off,” says one of the organizers, Scott Minier, “and Ryan got a wonderful send-off.”

Ryan died on a Sunday. His calling was Tuesday. His funeral Wednesday.

The service ended with the church organist launching into Charles-Marie Widor’s “Organ Symphony Number 5,” which was funeral home director Jerry Roberts’ cue to approach Bush and escort her from the sanctuary. Per Secret Service protocol, she was to be first out.

“It was all worked out ahead of time, and everyone knew,” Roberts says.

But in the drama of the moment Jackson, perhaps blanking on the drill, stood and offered his hand to Ryan’s mother. The two created a logjam in the narrow aisle, hemming in the first lady.

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Roberts gave Jackson an eye roll as if to say, “Really?” — a move CNN’s cameras must have picked up because Roberts’ friends watching from home later asked him: “How mad were you at Michael Jackson?”

“I was perturbed,” Roberts says, “but it worked out fine.”

Ryan’s casket was loaded into a hearse, and 187 cars followed it for 25 miles to a Hamilton County cemetery. The motorcade itself was a feat, involving at least six local law-enforcement agencies.

For White-Ginder, the motorcade in a way was the best part. The former General Motors assembly line worker had been fussed over by Michael Jackson, Elton John and Barbara Bush. The governor of Indiana had ordered flags lowered to half-staff in honor of her son. But now came a broader embrace.

“All the way to Cicero,” White-Ginder says, “cars were pulled off the highways, and people stood outside their cars and were saluting Ryan, like a military salute.

“That was the most moving moment. Highway 31. People saluting.

“Just everyday people, saluting Ryan.”

 

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