By William Waybourn
Much has been said about the beauty of Kim Dawson as a mother, wife, model, businesswoman and civic leader, but the beauty I knew came from a place that no lens could ever capture -- her heart.
As AIDS ravaged the gay population in Dallas, our backs were literally to the wall. We had few resources and needed help. Pleas for action or compassion frequently fell on deaf ears. Because AIDS was a “gay disease” and politicized, government agencies disdained us, funeral homes refused to embalm bodies and families abandoned their sons. Infected individuals lost their jobs, their insurance and their belongings were tossed into the streets. Out of this crisis, we created the AIDS Resource Center as a branch of the now Dallas Gay and Lesbian Alliance.
I knew we would need names and money, so I called Kim, an old friend from my days at the Market Center, inviting her to lunch at The Little Mushroom. Like an experienced politician, Kim made the rounds of the small dining area inside the Decorative Center. “Darlin’ what do you need?” I gave her a quick update of our plight, how Dallas was the only major city without a clinical trial or access to readily available AIDS services. The stigma of AIDS was killing us quicker than the disease.
Without hesitation, Kim said “put my name on (the advisory board) and who can I call?” I was ready with my list of important Dallas citizens and within hours, my phone began to ring with acceptances, Mayor Annette Straus, former Mayor Adelene Harrison, School Board member Harryette Ehrhardt and the list grew and grew.
We needed money, of course, and Kim was a tour de force on raising funds for the Center. Not only did she lend her name, but she pushed others to contribute money or time or both. One of our first fundraisers was a fashion show in the vast expanse of the Apparel Mart. At the rehearsals the day before the big event, the “celebrity host” apparently got cold feet about lending his name to such a cause. Kim stopped the proceedings and with her arm looped in his said “take a walk with me.” Kim escorted him down that long runway that ran from the stage like a thoroughfare inside Apparel Mart’s four-story atrium. We watched as they stood at the end in a soundless, but animated conversation. They were at about the same spot where models made their turns and I had seen Kim’s smile transfuse many of them with renewed confidence and grace to make the long walk back. As the two of them returned to the stage, Kim announced “Ok, we’re ready. Now where were we?”
At another event to raise money for the AIDS Financial Assistance Fund, Kim pulled in personal favors to get name designers, including Givenchy, Alexander Julian and celebrities like Faye Dunaway, Cicely Tyson and Morgan Fairchild to attend. She put a “name” at every table just so they could assist in opening pocketbooks. Lucy Crow Billingsley started it off by writing a personal check for $50,000 and we used the money the very next day.
As AIDS progressed unabated, Kim herself saw individuals close to her and her agency become infected and/or sick. The calls always began with “Kim Dawson gave me your number” and I knew from there where the conversation was about to go.
One such young man was a brilliant producer of many of Kim’s fashion shows. His creativity transcended from the models on the stage to the audience. He was extremely talented, and as a black man, Kim shoved him out onto the world stage. When he got sick, he came back to Kim. I could tell his death was a tremendous loss. She called me to join me in her “other office” inside the Apparel Mart’s Third Floor Fashion Theatre, where he had produced many shows. We sat there in the stillness and darkness of the usually vibrating room and she said that other than the death of her mother, his death was the hardest. Their personal relationship and the loss of his creative genius had brought her to tears. His death may have taken the wind out of her, but only momentarily. Kim always came back with the force of a Texas tornado.
Another model was sick and Kim called seeking help, as nothing seemed to be working. I told her of a noted AIDS doctor on the west coast conducting some promising trials, but the criteria to get in was very strict. A few months later, I saw him at an AIDS conference and told him how much I appreciated his enrolling one more person. He said, “Actually, he didn’t qualify at all, but after an hour on the phone with Kim Dawson, I waived him in based on compassionate use.” Kim had that kind of impact.
One weekend Kim called from the ICU unit of a hospital in a small town south of Dallas. She had decided to go on her own and check on one of the models who was sick. Horrified, she found him barely able to breath. I told her it could be particularly deadly type pneumonia requiring treatment by an AIDS physician and hospital with the right medications right away. She asked the name of the best doctor and hospital in Dallas, so I gave her a couple of names and numbers. A few hours later she called from the hospital in east Dallas – not only had Kim checked the young man out of one hospital, but she rented an ambulance to transport him to another hospital in Dallas. Unfortunately, despite her intervention, it was too late and he died a few days later.
Kim was upset that he had waited so long to get treatment, so I told her about our own illegal delivery of pentamidine as a preventative treatment. We had a doctor who wrote the prescriptions and a nurse deliver the treatments, but we needed more machines to aerosolize the drug so it could better reach the impacted areas of the lung compromised by the pneumonia. She ripped out a check and said, “Darlin’ buy four more.” I reminded her that we could get arrested and the publicity could be awful. “Don’t worry Darlin’, I’ll come visit you.”
Kim may have been a former fashion model, but she will always be a role model for her response to AIDS.