Using the Power of Television, CNN Anchor Tom Cassidy Puts a Human Face on AIDS: His Own

updated 09/17/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/17/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

For almost two years newsman Tom Cassidy kept his affliction with AIDS a secret. The CNN business anchor battled pneumonia and pancreatitis and weathered the loss of 20-odd lbs. in private. Then, this past Easter, a sudden trip to the hospital blew his cover. When he didn't show up at work on Monday, Cassidy's CNN colleagues in New York City panicked. They called the police, the FBI, the morgue and, finally, his sister Lorraine, who phoned his old college roommate. "My roommate called, asking, 'What do you want me to tell your sister?' " remembers Cassidy, 42. "I said, 'Tell her everything.' I was so tired of keeping this terrible secret. Lorraine didn't even know I was gay."

Now everyone knows. Recently the respected newscaster—known for his hard-hitting interviews with the nation's CEOs on CNN's Pinnacle—disburdened himself in a three-part series on New York's WCBS-TV evening news. In the often emotional broadcasts, the once-robust ex-college football player was shown getting treatment for Kaposi's sarcoma, confronting his family in Boston and discussing the temptation to take his own life. Sitting in his Manhattan apartment a few days after the series aired, Cassidy says, "Ever since Ryan White died, there hasn't been a face of AIDS. My mission is to wake up the kids. It only takes one mistake and you can die. For 12 years I sold credibility for a living. People believed me when I told them about the markets. Why shouldn't they listen to me now?"

The youngest child of a secretary and a plasterer who abandoned the family early on, Cassidy was raised by his mother in a Boston housing project. "We were poor," he says, "but we didn't know it. My mother had very high standards." Buoyed by a football scholarship, Cassidy went to Maine's Bowdoin College and in 1978 earned dual master's degrees in business and journalism from Columbia University. His first news job was with KEZI-TV in Eugene, Ore. "I was this hotsy-totsy kid," he says. "The first thing my boss made me do was make coffee."

Cassidy joined CNN in 1981, the year after its inception, and launched Pinnacle in 1984. "I profiled more company chairmen than anybody," he says. "I used to ask them very personal questions—a quarter of them cried. A number would say, 'You're writing my obituary.' Now I get in this position. It's one of life's ironies."

Another irony is that Cassidy was diagnosed HIV-positive on Oct. 19, 1987—the same day the stock market crashed. "For the next three days, I lived at the stock exchange," he recalls. "It was a terrific distraction. I almost forgot I was HIV-positive." He got full-blown AIDS a year later but could not bring himself to tell his family. "I remember saying two words to my sister, 'I'm sorry.' She said, 'That's nonsense. It's not your fault.' Lorraine is good at dealing with shock." Less adept is Cassidy's 82-year-old father, Thomas Sr., who rejoined the family 10 years ago, just after Tom's mother died. "He said, 'Tell me about this gay stuff. Are you gay 24 hours a day?' "

Meanwhile, the people at CNN have behaved in princely fashion. "Tom spends so much energy making certain that it is easy for everyone," says Lou Dobbs, Cassidy's managing editor. "I've never known a more courageous man." These days, however, Cassidy's energy is low. His appearances on the air are now limited to updates and headline news. He begins every day the same way, checking the wires for news of developments on AIDS.

He says the worst part of his illness is that he has lost his ability to dream about the future. Still, Cassidy does not dwell on morbid themes and has never asked his doctor how much time he has left. "I'm not willing to accept death yet," he says. "Rehearsing your death makes for good television. But, in my mind's eye, I have never gone to that 11th hour."

—William Plummer, Maria Eftimiades in New York

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