A day after David Purchase died, friends remembered him Tuesday as a pioneer who fought HIV-AIDS on the streets of Tacoma and gave birth to what became an international health movement.
With a borrowed TV tray and a folding chair, Purchase began the nation’s first exchange of dirty needles for clean ones in 1988 while sitting on a street corner in downtown Tacoma.
All he wanted to do was help prevent the spread of HIV-AIDS among drug users.
“When he began talking about the needle exchange, his sense of social justice, Dave didn’t have a neutral gear or a reverse gear,” said Lyle Quasim, a friend since 1970. “Dave only had forward gears.”
Purchase won tacit approval from then-Police Chief Ray Fjetland, who had his officers observe the exchange but promised not to make drug-paraphernalia arrests. Soon, the program was being copied across the country.
“We were working together on substance-abuse programs, and I was working for the (Tacoma-Pierce County) Health Department,” Terry Reid recalled. “Dave would come by the office on his Harley, I’d hop on the back, and we’d go to some cafe and conduct business.”
“In August ’88, he took it a step further and began the needle exchange,” Reid added. “He telephoned me before he went on the street and said, ‘If I do this, can you help me get public money?’ ”
Before long, public health officials endorsed and supported the exchange — and today the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department runs it.
Purchase went on to found the North American Syringe Exchange and the Point Defiance AIDS Project and was instrumental in programs that began as far away as Australia and Italy.
“David was a public health hero, and a few years ago he received an award from the state health association,” Reid said. “He was the instigator, and everyone else was a supporting actor.”
Purchase, who was 73 when he died, was also a father, a passionate liberal and a man who overcame major health problems again and again.
“Dad beat cancer 12 years ago, was almost killed in a 1982 motorcycle accident,” daughter Becky Purchase Ford said Tuesday. “My brother Dylan probably said it best: He was a medical badass. This wasn’t the first time we were called to his deathbed.”
A product of the ’60s, Purchase proudly carried that era with him the rest of his life.
“We went to high school, then college at UPS together,” Dennis Flannigan said. “David became a photographer for Boeing and shot test flights. He talked like a hippie, looked like a hippie and was a hippie.
“I was a guy people liked. David was a guy who changed lives.”
Flannigan, a former state lawmaker and Pierce County councilman, remembers Purchase being asked to testify about needle-exchange programs before Congress.
“He was a lovable, determined man, but he told them, ‘You’re letting people die’ by not supporting the effort,” Flannigan said. “He challenged authority in such an articulate, measured way, you could not defeat his logic.”
His children recall Purchase away from the controversy and spotlight of his public life.
“He worked swing shift for years, and when he’d come home I would wake up and come downstairs and he’d share his Alka-Seltzer with me and laugh at Johnny Carson,” Ford said. “We spent a lot of time in the woods, the three of us. Dad would stop on the way to pick up unsweetened grape juice, cheese and fresh-made bread, and we’d go explore Dash Point.”
An avid fisherman all his life, Purchase often took son Dylan along, Ford said — both on Purchase’s beloved Harley-Davidson.
“My brother was maybe 9 or 10, and they’d gone fishing and they were on my dad’s Harley and Dylan was almost falling asleep on the way back. Dad was afraid he’d fall asleep and fall off the back – so he made him sing all the way home to keep him awake,” Ford said.
After Purchase was nearly killed by a drunken hit-and-run driver in 1982, he spent months rehabilitating and once vowed to ride his Harley again.
“When he said that, my brother and I turned white,” Ford said. “So he bought a roadster instead.”
And when Purchase won a settlement years later, he used much of the money — $3,000 — to purchase syringes and begin giving them away.
“I didn’t understand what he was up to when I was younger, but we were always taught to fight for what you believe,” Ford said. “Dad said you should learn to articulate what you’re fighting for.”
Larry LaRue: 253-597-8638