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Walter J. Lear, health official, activist

WALTER J. LEAR was an activist whose causes ranged from health reform to support of revolutionaries in El Salvador and nearly every cause in between.

WALTER J. LEAR was an activist whose causes ranged from health reform to support of revolutionaries in El Salvador and nearly every cause in between.

As a writer once put it, Lear "made a lifetime of noise in the name of the poor and the persecuted, the sick and the scorned."

The fact that Lear was probably the first openly gay person to hold public offices in the city and state usually dominated discussion of his career, but he was an advocate for nearly anything he thought would make life better for Americans.

Walter Lear, a physician who served as deputy Philadelphia health commissioner in the '60s and later regional health commissioner for the Pennsylvania Department of Health, died May 29 of multiple myeloma. He was 87 and lived in Powelton Village.

It was while serving in the state Health Department that Lear decided to come out of the "closet." In January 1976, the first edition of the Philadelphia Gay News reported that Lear, then 52, had revealed himself to be homosexual.

His purpose, the newspaper reported, was "to emphasize the need for better medical treatment for gays."

In fact, he was a strong advocate for better health care for everybody, and was an early advocate of a public health system that would guarantee health-insurance coverage for all Americans.

He authored books on health-care reform in which he urged the younger generation of health activists to end "this bureaucratic nonsense" and create a national health system.

"It's tragic and immoral that this, the richest country in the world, has decided to make profit-making the central value of the health field," he said.

Lear was appointed deputy city health commissioner by Mayor James H.J. Tate in 1964, and in 1971, Gov. Milton J. Shapp named him state regional health commissioner. Tate later appointed him executive director of the old Philadelphia General Hospital.

Of course, Lear was also active in gay and lesbian organizations and battled for better understanding of the AIDS scourge and support for its sufferers.

He helped found the Gay and Lesbian Community Center, now the William Way Center, and the Philadelphia AIDS Task Force, as well as the Maternity Care Coalition of Greater Philadelphia.

He convened the first national conference on AIDS in the 1980s.

Lear was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and received a bachelor's degree from Harvard in 1943. He received his medical degree in 1948 from Long Island College of Medicine, and a master's in hospital administration from Columbia University in 1948.

He came to Philadelphia from New York to accept the city Health Department job. He said he was convinced that Tate would never have appointed him if he had been openly gay in 1964.

As it was, Shapp was inundated with complaints when Lear announced his sexual orientation while serving as regional health commissioner.

However, the uproar died down and Lear always said that the people he worked with had no problem accepting him.

He received strong support from fellow physicians. "He showed me that physicians can do good things," said Dr. Lawrence "Bopper" Deyton, who ran the AIDS Service program of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Lear was a competitive swimmer. In April 1998, he told the Daily News' Leon Taylor that he was about to leave for Amsterdam to particate in the 75-80 age bracket in swimming at the Gay Olympics.

"I'm going for the gold," he said.

And he made it. He got his gold medal in the 200-meter freestyle.

Lear is survived by his longtime partner, James F. Payne; his former wife, Evelyn Lear; a son, Jon Stewart, and a daughter, Bonnie Stewart.

Services: Memorial service 2 p.m. June 19 in the Rare Book and Manuscript Libary at the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center, University of Pennsylvania.