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Off the Celebrity Bandwagon - by Alison Arngrim

Designer's West - July 1990

I have been a volunteer with AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA) for three and a half years. A lot of people have asked me how I got started and why I'm still at in I started in 1986 when my friend Steve got sick. I'm still at it because he didn't get better.

From 1974 through 19811 appeared on the NBC television series "Little House on the Prairie" as Nellie Oleson (commonly known as the "Prairie Bitch"). I started out as a rotten, spoiled, evil young woman. The time came for my character to get married off. (On "Little House on the Prairie" everybody got married, even people like Nellie Oleson.) Presented with this challenge, a wonderful actor named Steve Tracy was hired to play the part of my husband, Percival Dalton. The next two episodes read like a warped version of "Taming of the Shrew" Nellie stopped being a bitch, and Steve Tracy became very popular with fans of the show as the man who stood up to Nellie Oleson.

It has been my experience that when people play husband and wife in film or television, one of two things happens. You either hate each other's guts, or you become best friends. Luckily, Steve and I were the latter. So I was more than a little upset when Steve started telling me in late 1984 that he had "a form of cancer" and became vague about details. He told me that he was receiving treatment and that he was "in remission." In 1986 he told me the truth. He had been diagnosed with Kaposi's Sarcoma and was receiving gamma interferon treatments. He was also going to appear on a local television show, "Mid-Morning Los Angeles," to tell everyone.

Some people do not like to go public with their AIDS diagnosis. Then there are people like Steve. Steve granted an exclusive interview to the Enquirer. He made the cover. The article was extremely favorable, and the magazine really did a very good job of covering the story. However, we still had to deal with the headline: "Ex-Little House Star Has AIDS; Nellie Oleson's Husband Fights Dread Disease" This was accompanied inside with pictures of Steve and myself from the wedding episode.

If I had had any plans to stay out of this, it was time to forget them. Various newspapers and individuals decided that if my friend had AIDS, I must be some sort of an expert on it and possibly infected myself. People began asking very peculiar questions. My roommate's aunt called to ask "if she was O.K." and "Has he been in the apartment?"

I loved Steve and was willing to do anything to help him. However, I just didn't know that much about AIDS and felt that I was being put on the spot. I felt that, under the circumstances, I had a responsibility to educate myself. I began asking questions of anyone that I thought might know anything about AIDS. At the time, nobody did.

I was finally sent to APLA, and I have since been involved as a volunteer for almost every program. I joined the AIDS hotline, Speakers Bureau, and presently serve as the volunteer host for APLA's public service cable show, "AIDS Vision" In the beginning, I went right into the Ho dine training. I was in class 32. My teacher's name was Michael. I did very well. On the final exam, I got 128 out of 130 correct. Only one problem. While I was in the middle of training, Steve died.

A lot of people thought I would leave when Steve died. I can understand how some people get involved when a friend gets AIDS in the hope that if they do the right thing, their friend will get better. And when it doesn't happen, they think they have done something wrong. If you become an AIDS volunteer on the premise that you are going to single-handedly bring this thing to an end, you are bound to be disappointed. Am I ever disappointed? Often. So why don't I burn out?

I was burned out many times, but I just keep getting re-lit. What am I supposed to do? "Oh, there's no cure this week, I quit.""You mean, they're not giving me the Nobel Peace Prize? I don't want to play any more. I'm going home."

When things get bad, I don't act stoic and pretend it doesn't bother me. I don't go out and get drunk. I don't go home and pick a fight with my husband. So what do I do? I cry. A lot. And then my husband makes me chocolate chip cookies and gets me Kleenex. But he doesn't tell me it will all be O.K. He knows better.

Sometimes things work out. Sometimes I am able to get information to people who need it. Sometimes people who were afraid to visit their sick friends find out that it's all right. Sometimes people who would like to volunteer, but don't because they think they have nothing to offer, find out that they are mistaken.

I try to see to it that people get their questions answered, their fears dispelled; I work like a human rolodex. If you tell me you're looking for something, and I know someone who's got it, I will see to it that you two get together. I can't find the cure for AIDS, but if somebody else can, I'm going to get his or her phone number.

Why do I still do this? Why haven't I just moved on to the next "celebrity bandwagon"? Because this isn't a bandwagon. This is real life. I'm doing this as a human being. Why I'm still doing this isn't the question. I'm trying to figure out why everybody else isn't doing this with me.