20 years of walking for her son

Glendale Heights woman stands up for AIDS awareness with yearly participation in event

Do not suggest a wheelchair.

It doesn't matter that Mae Smith is 86. She plans to do this Sunday's AIDS Run & Walk Chicago on her feet, just as she has done every year — every single one — since her son Ron died 20 years ago.

Smith is a small woman with sharp blue eyes, quick to hug people she's just met. Arthritis stings her back. Her gait is slow. Unlike all the years she bustled around as a waitress, she sometimes needs a friendly arm to lean on.

She's walking the walk Sunday anyway, five kilometers along Lake Michigan, wearing her new white Nikes.

"I just feel so upbeat when I'm out there," she said one day last week, sitting with several relatives in the kitchen of the Glendale Heights house where she lives with three birds and a 14-year-old white poodle.

It was in this wood frame house that Smith raised eight children, and it was here that Ron came back to live out his final time, at the age of 33, in his boyhood bedroom.

She knew little about AIDS on the day that Ron called and said, "I'm sick."

Back in 1993, the disease was a swift, sure killer that came with the twin plagues of ignorance and shame. But when Ron said, "I need to come home for a while," his mother didn't hesitate or judge.

"He needed his mom," she said.

Ron was the sixth of Smith's children. She had the first five with her first husband. That marriage, to use her words, quickly went down the drain.

"There I was with five kids," she said, "and I kicked him out of the house."

She was waitressing at a Maywood coffee shop when she met a customer named Mike, a regular who liked to tease her. She married him. Ron was the first of their three children, and together they raised the whole crew of eight.

As Ron was growing up, no one in the family thought of him as gay. He was just the brother who loved to dance, wear his mom's mink for Halloween and do his sisters' hair, a hobby that turned into a career as a hairstylist.

When Mae Smith eventually learned that Ron was gay, she didn't balk.

"Well," she thought, "if that's the way it is, that's the way it is."

She pushed back at the disease, though. As she took care of Ron, through the shingles, the pneumonia, the lymphoma, she remained convinced that a miracle would save him. She believed in the miracle right up through his last trip to the hospital.

"Some things," she said, sitting at her kitchen table, studying her fingers against the plastic tablecloth, "I don't like to remember."

One of her daughters, Gayle Lutz, leaned over.

"You got your miracle, Mom," Lutz said, patting her hand. "He went so fast. He didn't suffer."

After Ron died, Mae Smith needed four things.

She needed faith, so she went back to church.

She needed to learn to drive, so she did.

She needed the consolation of work, so she increased her hours at Burger King, where she advanced to manager, retiring only at the age of 79, and only because she didn't like working with computers.

And she needed to walk.

She did the first Chicago AIDS walk in the same year Ron died, 1993. She liked the grand beauty of the city, the comfort of the excited crowd, the sense that she was helping other people understand the disease and survive it.

Her husband, Mike, walked, too. In 2008, the year before his death, he did the course in a wheelchair, wearing an oxygen tube. The kids tried to get Mae to sit in one as well. She sat. And promptly stood up.

"It's a walk," she said.

She has rejected all talk of a wheelchair ever since.

This year, to mark Smith's 20th walk, everyone in the family has been summoned. Kids, spouses, grandkids, great-grandkids. They're expecting a walking crew of at least 50, everyone dressed in a green shirt, after which they'll come back to Smith's house for her annual memorial cake, which she bakes in one of her 43 cake pans.

"You see her on that walk," her daughter-in-law Tammy Smith said, "and you see her standing taller and prouder."

"Strutting," her daughter Gayle said.

"For Ron," Mae Smith said. "For Ron."

And because it's hard to be sad when you're walking.

mschmich@tribune.com

CHICAGO

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