SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) — Over the weekend, people around the world observed World AIDS Day. In San Francisco, one event unfolded at the National AIDS Memorial Grove in Golden Gate Park.
On Saturday, the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus opened up a moving program. In the crowd, KPIX 5 spotted a woman whom we had interviewed more than 30 years ago.
Her name is Rita Rockett. Former KPIX reporter Mike Hegedus did a story on Rita on June 6, 1986.
The location all those years ago: the AIDS Ward at San Francisco General Hospital. These days were among some of the darkest one in San Francisco’s history. The AIDS epidemic was in full swing. Some lawmakers were calling for a mandatory quarantine of patients.
There was no cure, but plenty of stigma associated with the illness. The ward was a somber place to be, except perhaps on Sunday mornings.
“To be able to be a positive light in the darkness, that’s all I wanted to do.” explained Rita.
On Sunday mornings, Rita brought a feast to feed the entire ward of patients, their loved ones, and the staff. She was a bundle of energy, and took the ward by storm.
Hegedus was blown away by the young woman. He remembered how the stigma of AIDS harmed patients.
He saw firsthand how some journalists and broadcast crews refused to even go into the hospital to cover the story.
And in 1986, there was a young lady who worked as a travel agent, who hugged, and kissed, and cooked for these very sick patients.
“When the opportunity arose, to do a story with somebody as just as full of life frankly as Rita Rockett, who just embraced the people with AIDS, who wanted to make their lives better, it was remarkable,” exclaimed Hegedus.
“A lot of these guys know me from the crazy days here in the city when I was dancing on a pool table with them. Well I’m just dancing down the hospital hall. It’s just an extension of my cheerleading,” explained Rita.
Rita began her brunches in 1984 as a way to cheer up a very sick friend who was hospitalized in the AIDS Ward at SF General.
“And, I remember the guys saying he had a light case of AIDS because they didn’t want to alarm me and I was like what is that? Is it like a light case of cancer? What does that mean?,” said Rita.
She planned an Easter brunch, but her friend died before the party could take place.
She served brunch anyway to everyone in the ward.
“I was so afraid that all the patients were going to say ‘Go away, we don’t want you here; don’t bother us. And it wasn’t that way at all,” explained Rita.
The rest is history. For 16 years, Rita and her Brunch Bunch gang volunteered: raising money, planning meals, and every other Sunday, serving Brunch.
She had a system of portion sizes.
“It was a ‘small’, ‘medium’, or ‘large,’ and this guy was saying ‘Bring me a large of everything and a Diet Coke and I’m like, ‘Girl! This is an AIDS Ward! We don’t have ‘diet’ anything,’” quipped Rita.
She remembered the joy on their faces when they realized they could eat something.
Her brunches were legendary, and not just because of her macaroni salad. Rita dressed for the occasion. They had pajama parties. She was the Easter Bunny as well as Mrs. Claus.
During the years, she and her friends spent cooking up brunches. One patient named Shane craved vegetarian lasagna, which was unheard of in San Francisco during the 80s. Rita found some at a hippie store, and he gobbled it down.
Rita got pregnant twice, and had two boys. “People Magazine” wrote a story about her. She was stunned to get hate mail and death threats in response.
But then again, she said she also a lot of positive feedback from moms and families around the nation whose lives had been touched by AIDS, and felt no one understood.
“I regret that I didn’t do it more. I did it every other Sunday. I regret that I didn’t do it more,” remarked Rita.
Now, Rita’s heart is on full display in a new documentary called “5B.” by Oscar nominated director Dan Krauss.
The movie is about the AIDS Ward, and its group of volunteer nurses and caregivers, including Rita, who created a shelter full of acceptance and compassion. The AIDS Ward at San Francisco General Hospital was pioneering, and the first of its kind in the nation.
“It was a safe haven, a place of love, a place of no judgement,” said Rita.
The movie recently premiered at the Castro Theatre, and moviegoers gave the filmmakers and the cast a standing ovation.
Former KPIX reporter Hank Plante who extensively covered the epidemic was featured in the film.
“It bought up a lot of emotion for me. I didn’t expect to get so teary eyed but these are things I haven’t thought about in many, many years,” remarked Plante.
KPIX is pleased Rita is part of Channel 5’s station’s history
“She was spectacular! You can’t fake that kind of energy. You can’t fake that kind of energy, You can’t fake that kind of enthusiasm and that kind of heart that she has.” said Hegedus.
“I am proud to be a part not only of your history with this channel. but to be part of San Francisco history because if you love San Francisco, it loves you back,” said Rita.
Her name is engraved in the AIDS Grove’s “Circle of Friends,” which is considered the “Heart of the National AIDS Memorial.” To date, the circle is engraved with over 2,500 names of individuals touched by AIDS, including those who have died, those who loved them, and donors.