The Survivor

By  Rheanna O’Neil Bellomo

Photo by Kelly MacDonald

Robert Publicover nestles into a chair by the door at Three Little Figs (278  Highland Ave.) with a small coffee and the New York Times. The 62-year-old, born in Somerville and raised in Davis Square, perches reading glasses on the end of his nose and studies the paper. His daily ritual has begun.

Publicover has dedicated much of his life to pouring energy into serving others while pushing through his own setbacks. While battling HIV/AIDS for three and a half decades, he has become one of the most notable and recognizable figures in the Somerville community. He founded the Somerville News in 1980 and ran it for 22 years. He founded the Committee for a Response to AIDS in 1985 just before his own diagnosis, and the Somerville high School Scholarship Fund in 1990. He’s authored two books about the virus, and began a state senate campaign in 2005. You can call him a newsman or an activist or an entrepreneur. First and foremost, though, Publicover has always been a fighter.

In 1986, when first diagnosed with HIV, Publicover’s doctor warned that he only had 18 months to live. “I didn’t believe him,” Publicover said. “I just knew better.” Testing on a previous blood sample following the diagnosis would later show that he had contracted the virus as early as 1976.

In the 1990s, Publicover became the go-to guy for  HIV-positive young men looking for advice or consoling at his old hangout, the former Bar 119 on Merrimack Street in Boston. His guidance earned him a nickname. “They called me The Godfather,” he said. “And they used to joke that long after everyone else was dead, I would still be around.

“Well, they were right.”

Today, Publicover is believed to be the nation’s longest living survivor of AIDS.

A Love Lost

He has questioned why, of all his friends and family, he has survived both HIV/AIDS and cancer. “I used to get asked all the time why me, and i used to have great answers,” he said. “Now I’m not sure. Some things just don’t have answers. All I know is I must have done something right – or God is getting even.”

Though he is grateful for the time he has been able to keep, losing so many friends and family over the course of a few years has left a scar. “There really is no way to deal with it. It was like a war,” he said. “I’ve lost so many, I’ve lost count and i don’t want to know.”

The most difficult of his losses was John, his partner of 11 years.

“We did everything together, non-stop,” he said. “We took for granted that I was older, we thought I would die before him.”

In 1981, Publicover had recently founded the News in the ashes of the defunct Somerville Times when he met John at Bar 119. Publicover was 32, John 21.

Together, the two established the fundraising non-profit Committee for a Response to AIDS in 1985. John had already been diagnosed. Publicover’s diagnosis would follow shortly after.

In 1992, John was in and out of Somerville Hospital numerous times with an HIV-related illness. After his third visit, there was little doctors could do. For three months, Publicover visited three times a day.

“He was very dedicated to John, taking care of him day and night,” said Mary Hart, a nurse in the clinic at Somerville Hospital at the time. “When John wanted to go home at the end, Bob was determined to get him there.”

Hart volunteered to assist John at home. Two or three days later, he died.

“There were no solutions,” Publicover said. “It was the hardest thing. A grief you think you’ll never get over.”

For about a year after losing John, Publicover fell into depression but was the first to recognize it and get help, according to Hart. “He has never felt sorry for himself and is always determined to hang in there and be a survivor,” she said. “That’s who he is, a survivor.”

A Love Found

In the years following, Publicover wrote two books about the power and effect AIDS has on those diagnosed and their friends and families: My Unicorn Has Gone Away and What’s Wrong with Uncle Johnny? The books were born from both his and John’s experiences with HIV/AIDS.

These testaments invoking his lost love would help lead him to his next.

In 2005, a nursing student contacted Publicover about his writing. David Lebahan, 38, was working on an HIV education piece in his hometown, Scranton, Penn. The two formed a mentor-mentee relationship – first over email, later in person. Eventually, they started dating.

On their first date at The Franklin Café in Boston’s South End, Lebahan had to step outside to catch his breath. “I am so pathetically romantic. I thought to myself, ‘Wow, this guy is something else. He’s pretty incredible, how did I end up on a date with him?’” he said. “That was my ‘aha’ moment, and it only blossomed more and more.”

Six months later, shortly after Publicover ended a state senate campaign because of his health, Lebahan moved in with him.

During their first weekend together, Publicover became extremely ill at a rapid pace. He was bed-ridden for six months with an AIDS-related illness. He couldn’t eat, receiving nutrition through an intravenous drip. His weight dropped to 82 pounds, from 124. “It was absolutely terrifying,” Lebahan said. “Every time he goes in it’s still terrifying – not because you’re afraid he won’t come home but because you don’t know what the next step is. And there will be a next time.”

“His T [cell] count has been so low that anyone else would have been dead,” added Hart. “With Bob, it’s, ‘Oh well, I’m going to get my shots and get some sunshine and keep going.’”

After working through illness, death, loss, and survival, Publicover considers HIV his best friend and his worst enemy. “It’s the one constant that’s been in his life for the past 35 years…I call him my cockroach. The man will live through nuclear war,” said Lebahan.

New Directions

Publicover sold the News in 2002, between publishing his second book and meeting David. By the time he sold, the paper had become a Somerville centerpiece known for its long features focusing on notable community members.

“He featured all kinds of city contributors,” recalled John Sappochetti, who covered sports under Publicover as a 16-year-old and has remained a close friend since. “Teachers, politicians, business owners, families who had lived here a long time.”

Of late, his working time has been equally split between his two lasting projects: the Committee for a Response to AIDS; and the Somerville High School Scholarship Foundation, which he established in 1990 to help send students from his alma mater to college. Publicover and Lebahan have kept travel a constant in their life, staying in New York City for a Broadway show and occasionally flying to San Francisco for the warm weather.

This morning, in the café, Publicover pulls a suit jacket over the light blue fleece zipped to his chest, his plaid tie barely visible. His salt and pepper hair is cut short. His face wrinkles with laughter when he smiles. He has his sights on his next great adventure. His goal is to establish a new small business, but for the first time in a long time he’s unsure which direction to take.

The first step for Publicover is to end his battle with perianal cancer. After three years and four surgeries, he is scheduled for another biopsy, which he hopes is his last. He also has a lot of planning to do: his wedding with Lebahan is scheduled for June 17 at the Arlington Street Church. When the idea comes, though, he’ll be ready. “One day I’ll walk into something or it will hit me in the side of the head, and I’ll know it’s the right thing.”

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