Bruce Flannery, a local activist who headed a statewide AIDS agency for more than a decade, died suddenly Aug. 14 from complications of open-heart surgery. He was 54.
Flannery, a Long Island, N.Y., native, was living in Exton at the time of his death. He graduated from Columbia University in New York in 1977 with a degree in political philosophy.
After graduation, Flannery held several copywriting and freelance writing positions in both New York City and the Philadelphia area before launching his career as an HIV/AIDS activist.
In 1991, Flannery was hired as the manager of communications and public affairs at ActionAIDS, a position he held for four years.
While at the agency, Flannery consulted on the 1993 film “Philadelphia” and cast many of the real-life HIV-positive men who were featured in the movie.
At the time, Flannery told Newsday he thought the film had the potential to “humanize AIDS, make it real. Maybe things will change now.”
Flannery left ActionAIDS in 1995 to take over as the executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of AIDS Service Organizations, an umbrella agency that represented more than 40 HIV/AIDS agencies throughout the state.
As head of the agency for the next 10 years, he successfully lobbied for expanded state funding for HIV/AIDS issues — which increased by $20 million during his time at PCASO — and was influential in increasing the list of HIV/AIDS medications available through the state’s AIDS Drug Assistance Program.
Kevin Burns, executive director of ActionAIDS, said Flannery was an adept communicator, which fueled his success.
“Bruce’s approach to advocacy was very relationship-focused,” Burns said. “He’d educate people and then use reason to help people to change their opinions and to move agenda issues forward. He was a great networker and connected with people in Harrisburg quickly and effectively.”
Flannery became a well-known name among state politicians. Former Gov. Tom Ridge appointed him to the Inter-Governmental Council on Longterm Care, on which he served from 1997-2004, and Gov. Rendell named him to the Department of Health Transition Team in 2002. He also served as chair of the state’s HIV Planning Council from 1999-2005.
“For all those years he worked in Harrisburg, he was the AIDS guy,” said Ronda Goldfein, executive director of the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania. “He was just the designated representative for AIDS issues in the state.”
Flannery was also one of the driving forces behind the easing of restrictions on needle-exchange programs in Pennsylvania, an effort Goldfein said he spearheaded for years. The Independent Regulatory Review Commission approved new regulations last month and they now have to undergo a review by the attorney general and be published in the Pennsylvania Bulletin before being finalized.
“There’s something so great that, although Bruce died in this stunning, shocking way, at least he was around to see this long effort on his part come to fruition,” Goldfein said. “It hasn’t quite made it to the Pennsylvania Bulletin, but at least he was around to see something he had put so much into make it over all of these hurdles.”
Flannery left PCASO in 2005 and the agency became the HIV Policy Collaborative of Pennsylvania, a program of the AIDS Law Project. He went on to serve as the director of development at Calcutta House from 2005-07. Flannery also sat on the board of Calcutta from 2000-05 and served as vice president of the board of the AIDS Law Project from 2001-08.
For the past several years, Flannery worked as a consultant for Maternity Care Coalition, and the organization hired him full-time last summer as its director of fund development and marketing.
Flannery’s partner of 18 years, Otto Perrone, said he worked in every election to campaign for the Democratic Party and to elect those who would work for social change, which he said demonstrated that Flannery was a “very compassionate person who always cared about helping others.”
In addition to Perrone, Flannery is survived by many friends and colleagues.
Donations can be made in Flannery’s name to any charity.
Jen Colletta can be reached at [email protected].