HIV acquired from transfusion hasn't slowed town's busy Santa


LOS ALTOS, Calif. -- Walter Singer patted his stomach and joked that he might need a little extra stuffing to fit into his Santa Claus suit this year.

"I'm going to have to get a cushion this year," said Mr. Singer, the perennial Kris Kringle and one of the founders of the Los Altos Festival of Lights.

This is the humor of heroes.

Affectionately known as "Mr. Los Altos," Mr. Singer has become a symbol of the injustice and indiscriminate nature of acquired immune deficiency syndrome, and at the same time the inspiration that sometimes follows tragedy.

He was diagnosed as HIV positive last year, five years after receiving a blood transfusion during heart surgery. He hasn't developed full-blown AIDS, but has lost weight because of the infection and related treatment.

Since then, he has come to represent a bit of sadness and joy for this wealthy community. His struggle has helped spawn a higher level of awareness among many who would seem unlikely to be affected by AIDS -- his town and his friends at Los Altos Rotary.

Although he is 38 pounds lighter, Mr. Singer, 67, is as prepared as ever to don his traditional red-and-white garb and ride his sleigh down the street of Los Altos for the 12th year.

"Maybe I'll make this my last one," said Mr. Singer, with his hint of German accent. But he adds that as long as his body will hold out, he will continue to play the role.

Last year, the hospital where he had the heart surgery sent 8,000 letters notifying former patients to be tested for AIDS and 437 responded. Of those, Mr. Singer was the only one to test positive for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, he said.

Mr. Singer publicly announced his results to his fellow Rotarians on Dec. 7, 1989. There were few dry eyes following the announcement. He has helped launch the Rotary AIDS Project and is one of the key characters in the movie "The Los Altos Story," a story of how AIDS changed the lives of three Rotarians.

He said a few people have expressed concerns about their children coming into contact with someone who is HIV positive, and that is just the type of misinformation he is fighting.

"That worries me," he said. "It makes me upset . . . the ignorance of people. They don't know how you get this disease."

He is busy with speaking engagements and a number of volunteer projects, many of which focus on AIDS education.

"I made a commitment to dedicate my life to this," he said. "I feel it wasn't much use sitting around the house and feeling sorry for myself."

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