Professor emeritus honored at AIDS Walk SF for fundraising achievement

Fourteen people holding signs in front of a banner reading “AIDS WALK San Francisco”

The St. Francis Lutheran / San Francisco State University Geography & Environment team (photo courtesy of AIDS WALK San Francisco)

Max Kirkeberg led his department in a decades-long charge to raise $1 million for AIDS charities

In his decades at San Francisco State University, Professor Emeritus of Geography & Environment Max Kirkeberg was renowned for his walking tours of San Francisco. But earlier this month, he received recognition for a different achievement on foot: raising more than $1 million for AIDS charities over 23 years of leading a team in the AIDS Walk San Francisco.

Since 1987, the city’s annual 10K AIDS Walk has raised over $90 million for care, prevention and advocacy around HIV/AIDS. Kirkeberg has been leading a team consisting of colleagues from San Francisco State’s Geography & Environment Department and his church, St. Francis Lutheran in San Francisco, since 1996.

“Apparently, I don’t have the gene that makes me embarrassed at asking for help. I just asked everybody,” Kirkeberg said. “It occurred very early on that a huge percentage of the geography department — faculty, staff and students — were walking as part of our team.”

Kirkeberg and his partner Jimmy started participating in the AIDS Walk in 1988, and eight years later they helped form another team. Just a year after that, Jimmy passed away from lung cancer complicated by AIDS. “At this stage, they had just developed the drugs that changed AIDS from a death sentence to a chronic disease,” Kirkeberg said. “He didn’t quite make that.”

That loss, and the loss of others in the department and his church, spurred Kirkeberg on. “He turned anguish and pain into activism,” said Professor of Geography & Environment Nancy Wilkinson. Since then, the team has been walking with placards featuring photos of Jimmy and other victims of AIDS, both from the department and the church.

Each year Kirkeberg sends over 100 physical letters and about 85 email solicitations requesting donations and receives support from a devoted group of SF State students, faculty, staff and alumni. Even late in his career, he never stopped forging connections with his students. “He was still really working on his teaching even when he was a senior statesman,” said Wilkinson, who shared an office with Kirkeberg. “Every time after class, he’d come back to his office, he’d get out his little notebook and he’d write what went well and what he should do better next time. That probably explains why he has such a following among our alumni.”

Until January, decades after he technically retired, Kirkeberg continued working out of his SF State office and teaching classes, most recently through the University’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. Now he’s finally taken a step back and moved to Oregon, and he says this is his last year leading the team.

This year the team raised over $40,000, with Kirkeberg himself coming up with $18,000 in pledges from Oregon. Others point to Kirkeberg’s beloved place in the SF State community as an explanation for his fundraising achievements, but Kirkeberg says it’s more simple than that.

“All you have to do is ask — but you have to ask,” he said.