When concern about the spread of AIDS hit fever pitch in the 1980s, Chattanooga was one of many Southern cities without clinics and education to combat the disease.
Jim Samples, now 65, said he watched as many of his dying friends were ostracized by their families and faced public ridicule.
"Even the hospitals didn't want to help," said Samples. "At that time, it was just a horror story. Nobody wanted to do anything. ... We didn't know what HIV really was."
Samples opened the city's first AIDS resource center, Chattanooga CARES, on Brainerd Road in 1986. He said he was forced to leave the property when it was learned he was helping people with AIDS, what many called the "gay disease."
"I got death threats," he said. "People were going to burn down my house."
ABOUT THE AWARDS
The Jefferson Awards were restarted locally in May by the Chattanooga Times Free Press, WRCB-TV and First Tennessee Bank.
Monthly award nominations will be taken until March, when a local committee will select five honorees whose stories will be submitted to award officials in Washington, D.C. One of the award winners will be chosen to represent Chattanooga in the nation's capital for the national Jefferson Awards banquet.
Since 1972, the awards have been presented on the local and national levels.
Visit www.timesfreepress.com or www.WRCBTV.com to fill out an online nomination form.
Pick up a nomination form at any First Tennessee Bank location and deliver, mail or fax to: Chattanooga Times Free Press, P.O. Box 1447, Chattanooga, TN 37401 fax: 423-668-5001.
Samples is a local recipient of the monthly Jefferson Award, and people who have worked with him over the years said he has earned the recognition as a pioneering local advocate of AIDS education, a neighborhood volunteer and a homeless outreach worker.
"Back then, you had to be a lot braver than we are," said Jerry Evans, executive director at Chattanooga CARES. "They went through a lot."
Since receiving its nonprofit status in 1988, Chattanooga CARES has increased its grant support, its number of employees to 19 and its trained volunteers to more than 200.
Each year, the Chattanooga CARES clinic serves 500 patients, and prevention specialists speak to more than 20,000 people, said Mark Hite, who heads the organization's board of directors.
Samples, also a director, is one of the agency's most reliable resources, Hite said.
"He was on the forefront," he said. "We have come a long way from very humble beginnings, but if Jim hadn't stepped out in those early days, we wouldn't have been able to help so many people."
It's amazing, now, to hear the city's mayors and legislators talk about AIDS outreach, Samples said, and know that much of the stigma associated with the disease in the '80s has disappeared.
"In the last 10 years I have seen a complete turnaround," he said. "They don't know what others went through to be able to give them the acceptance that they have now. ... I feel like it was worth the fight."