Roger A. Nickles was barely able to dress himself the day he was called to testify on videotape that a chain of local clothing stores fired him because he had AIDS.
Although Nickles died two weeks ago, before he could be heard in person by the Alexandria Human Rights Commission, his anger and humiliation live on.
The commission, many of its 11 members visibly shaken by Nickles's videotaped testimony, was asked this week to find that the Alexandria-based Steven-Windsor Inc. clothing stores discriminated against the 47-year-old window dresser when they fired him nearly two years ago.
"My main point is not . . . to have financial gain from this hearing," said Nickles, looking well beyond his years in the 2 1/2-hour tape, which was recorded June 22 and played for the commission Monday night. "I stated right in the beginning that I wanted people at Steven-Windsor to know that they cannot discriminate against somebody because they have AIDS, or against anyone with any handicap."
The commission, whose ruling can be appealed to Circuit Court, is expected to announce its decision and any monetary award Aug. 2.
The two-day hearing, conducted Monday and Wednesday nights, turned in part on whether the 13-store chain headquartered on Duke Street fired Nickles because he had AIDS or was so disabled by the disease that he could not perform the work required of him.
Douglas B. Mishkin, Nickles's attorney, argued that his client received a message on his telephone answering machine three months after he was hired, telling him "in no uncertain terms he was being fired because he had AIDS." Mishkin added that Nickles was still capable of arranging window displays when Steven-Windsor fired him in September 1988.
According to testimony, Nickles worked for another men's clothing store until the illness began to claim his eyesight a year later. Mark Goodman, owner of the Marc Jeffries stores, employed Nickles until the fall of 1989, and testified that his work then was equal to any he had done earlier in their 17-year association.
Keith A. Rosenberg, attorney for Steven-Windsor President Morton Ruben, told the commission that Nickles was fired because he had become an unreliable independent contractor who "didn't come to work when he was supposed to."
Andrea F. Goldfarb, Steven-Windsor's display director, praised Nickles's work, but said she fired him because he was absent several times without explanation.
She said the situation was exacerbated by the fact that the chain was expanding and needed dependable help more than ever.
Goldfarb testified that when Nickles asked if he was being fired because he had AIDS, she told him: "No. If your illness is part of the reason you keep missing work, I'm sorry."
Nickles's videotaped testimony, viewed on two monitors arranged in the commission's City Hall meeting room, dominated the proceedings.
Dressed in a long-sleeved shirt, sweater and jacket, Nickles frequently mopped his brow, broke into fits of coughing and requested breaks, on one occasion telling those assembled, "I'm not sure even where we are physically."
Nickles, his memory and strength improving as his testimony went on, said he informed Steven-Windsor that he had AIDS before he was hired. He said he told them "it might interfere with the work I might do for them in terms of not having the energy to work on certain days."
At the end of the session, Nickles grew indignant when Rosenberg asked him to stand and touch his toes. "Can you touch your toes?" he asked the attorney. " . . . I refuse to do such an exhibition. I don't care if I screw up this hearing."
David Malinak, Nickles's roommate during the last few years, testified Monday night that Nickles remained active until very near the end of his life.
"His terror was that he would become a burden," Malinak told the commission, explaining why Nickles cherished the Steven-Windsor job.
Malinak added that Nickles regretted that he might not live long enough to address the commission in person. With tears reddening his eyes, Malinak told the commission, "Right before he died, Roger apologized that he wouldn't be alive for this hearing."