Should you be lucky enough to meet Francine Goldstein, there’s a better-than-average chance she’ll ask you for money. She asks former colleagues. She asks people at Macy’s in Herald Square. She asks elected leaders at the state, county and town levels. Throughout her 22 years in corporate finance at Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield, colleagues called her “the Terminator.” When she would enter a room, she joked, some would feign hiding under their desks.
Her cause, however, is a worthy one. For 31 years she has walked and collected donations from virtually anyone in her orbit to ensure that she never has to see another person suffer the way her best friend did when she died of AIDS in 1988. Goldstein, 72, is one of the most productive fundraisers for the Gay Men’s Health Crisis — the only organization that was willing to step up, with legal services and affordable medication, for her friend in her time of need.
“People say, ‘Francine, after 30 years, why are you still walking?’” Goldstein said in an interview last week. “It’s because I meet people, and they think that the crisis is over.”
Goldstein and her husband, Lenny, have been married for over 50 years. When the friend they shared, whom Francine declined to identify, was diagnosed with AIDS in 1986, life changed for both of them.
The woman likely contracted the HIV virus from a partner who had undergone a blood transfusion; she wasn’t a drug user. She was diagnosed while pregnant with a daughter, who was born HIV-negative.
“They thought during her pregnancy that she had pneumonia,” Francine said. “They didn’t do the blood screenings. I thought it was cancer; Lenny thought it was AIDS.”
Francine recalled her friend, who lived in Staten Island, calling her with the news shortly after she gave birth.
“She said, ‘I got AIDS. I understand if you never wanna see me again,’” Francine said, beginning to break down. “I said, ‘I’m your best friend. I’m gonna do whatever I can to help you.’”
Francine began to seek help for her friend, but found that all that was available on Staten Island was a substance-abuse program, and little else in the other boroughs. GMHC eventually stepped up with meals and housing help. “Staten Island was like a third-world country,” she said. “It was very conservative and very provincial, but it’s changing.”
Toward the end of her life, her friend weighed 43 pounds and had a collapsed lung, Francine said. It was then that she promised to do the AIDS Walk — and to never stop, as long as she was able to complete it.
Stigmas at the time led to Francine’s friend keeping her diagnosis from her daughter, and many people at the funeral, where Lenny delivered the eulogy. It didn’t mention AIDS, and it was “moving and funny,” Francine said.
Lenny hit on the woman’s tendency to be late to work and her relationship with her boss, and her kindness.
“She was very kind,” Francine said. “It was a testament to a friendship.”
“She was a good friend,” Lenny said.
Francine started small in her work for GMHC and its annual AIDS Walk — the first year, her only sponsor was Lenny — but in the years that followed, she became relentless, and found donors in all corners of Nassau and New York City. And she became closer to the AIDS-fighting community, as the struggle came out of the shadows.
“As the years go on, you meet more and more people who knew someone, or have lost someone,” Lenny said.
To date, Francine has raised more than $600,000 for GMHC, and takes the stage at the opening ceremonies each year, adorned with a crown. She has met Gov. Andrew Cuomo, GMHC co-founder Larry Kramer and others.
Francine will walk again at the 2019 AIDS Walk. For her life’s work and dedication to keeping a promise to a friend, the Herald is proud to name her its Person of the Year.
In 2016, Francine was recognized by the Nassau County Legislature in 2016 and received the Humanitarian of the Year award for raising a cumulative $505,000 for GMHC through the Aids Walk.
State Sen. John Brooks presented her with the New York State Liberty Medal — the highest civilian honor state senators can give — the same year.
Brooks said that she is “an unsung hero who grasps onto a life mission to help others, not for glory or profit,” but to lift up and come to the aid of people who often go unnoticed and uncared for.
“Francine’s selflessness and consideration of others is something to be admired and respected,” Brooks said.
Kelsey Louie, the CEO of GMHC, met Francine about four years ago, when he came on board. Within a few weeks of settling in, Louie said, the development team told him that there were a few people he had to meet. “Francine was at the top of that list,” he said.
“My first impression was, and remains what I know her as — she’s a bundle of energy,” Louie said. “She’s such a joy to be around, and she is so persistent in fundraising, so dedicated to fighting AIDS and raising awareness, and keeping her commitment to her friend. She’s fighting until there’s a cure.”
Louie’s description of Francine is apt. She talks with her hands, speaking with passion, and generally slowing only to lower her head when the conversation turns to those who have died, composing herself before turning back to hope.
Francine and Louie are both part of Cuomo’s plan, announced in 2014, to reduce the number of new HIV infections to 750, from 3,000, by 2020.
She is also an active political donor and, Lenny said, not shy about coming back to the candidates she supports for sponsorship when the AIDS Walk comes around. It’s “the good kind of quid pro quo,” he said.
People she worked with at Empire still donate every year, and one employee at Macy’s pledges $400 every year to Francine’s walk.
At her Empire retirement party, Lenny said, one co-worker came up to him and said, “Here’s $50, Lenny. Keep her at home.”
“Some of the guys, they’d take one look at me and look for the nearest exit,” she said. “I’d say, ‘Larry, it’s not gonna work. I need money.”
“She is one of GMHC’s best tools in our tool belt,” Louie said. “And she is relentless. It’s rare you find someone so dedicated.”