Michael Mooney: Nutrition and HIV Activist That Helped Thousands

Michael Mooney’s Life


Hi. We are going to mute everybody during the recorded part of this memorial, and then we’ll open it up when we start telling stories. So, thank you for sharing this time with my sister Kathy and me. I wanted to tell you the story of my brother’s life, and as I went through all of this, getting ready for the service, I realized that there were three major things that were really important to him through his whole life. One was his love of music, and one was his drive to be physically fit, and the other one that emerged more maturely as he got older was that he had a passion to learn about what real health and wholeness meant, especially coming out of health challenges. So, that’s what I’ve kind of built this presentation around.

So, let me start with Michael being born on Armed Forces Day in 1953 in Chicago. We moved to Alaska shortly after that. Alaska was still kind of a wilderness, and it was small communities. In those days, Armed Forces Day was like a huge local celebration. There was food, and it was like a fair. Fighter jets would fly by, and it was a big deal, and we didn’t know any better. We all thought that it was a big celebration for Michael’s birthday, which made him very happy.

He started out though pretty frail and fragile. His body was pretty fragile, and over on the left, you can see, I think that was when he was in first grade. He started first grade with both arms in casts. He would break his arm if he sneezed on, and he fell down a kiddie slide once and broke his arm and then broken on a concrete sidewalk once, just falling. Then, when he got both arms out of casts, he broke one of them again. So, he had three broken arms by the time he was in second grade, and he had not learned how to write very well. His writing was illegible.

Then, in third grade, a teacher named Mr. Wolbaum took him under his wing and taught him this elegant script, not just cursive, but this elegant script that he was very proud of for his whole life. We moved to Omaha when we were pretty young and were very Catholic, so Michael had his First Communion. As you can see, they dressed him up like a little mini grandpa, which was what they did with children in those days, and he also, like every other boy in the neighborhood, joined the Cub Scouts. Didn’t stay on very long, but he joined the Cub Scouts, which is incredibly ironic, and you’ll see why in a couple of minutes.

By seventh grade, he was into sports. So, this is a publication that he completely wrote by himself in seventh grade. He created fictional wrestlers. He wrote advertising for products that he’d made up, and he sold it for eight cents, and he sold it. People bought it. These other little kids bought it. So, it was actually his first successful business venture. He also started taking piano lessons early, and not long after that, he graduated to teaching himself how to play organ. I remember going with him and mom when we bought his first organ because he really wanted to play in combos. Now, take a look at his hair over here on the right. This was when the Beatles first came out, so it was very revolutionary even though they were all playing in their suits and ties, and Omaha was always 15, maybe 20 years behind the time, and so people actually thought that this was revolutionary enough that he, several times, was called a dirty hippie. I’m not making this up.

He started playing in bands, some of the most popular bands in Omaha. Occasionally, they would play in a club that he wasn’t even old enough to get into, but he played a lot of sock hops. They got paid pretty regularly for a band. At his age, that was a big deal, but here’s one of my favorite stories. I was at a sock hop one night. Mike’s band was up on stage. I was up against the wall with all the other single girls. He saw me, and he went up to the mic and smiled at me, and then leaned over and said, “Hey, everybody, that’s my sister over there in the blue dress.” Everybody turned around and looked at me, and he said, “Could somebody please ask her to dance?” It was so embarrassing, but I danced all night mostly because I was the sister of the cool guy.

Hmm. This is his junior yearbook picture. He was so handsome, and he was a bit of a loner, so that combination meant that all the girls were all over him. Isn’t he handsome? God. Anyway, he dated some of them. He dated some of the cool girls in high school, but it just never seemed to stick, which is, of course, the thousands, thousands of young gay men around the country who couldn’t come out had the same kind of stories. Because of this, I think he, for the rest of his life, he had a very public life, but he also had a very private life. He didn’t like high school, and he never liked conventional education. So, he quit in the middle of his senior year. He was bored, and he just quit. He did test out of his diploma the next year, but it was the end of his formal education. For all intents and purposes, it was a defining statement for him because everything else he did throughout his life was self-taught.

During this time, I think the only place he ever felt at home was with his music. He picked up guitar on his own, and he became a lifelong concert junkie, particularly The Rolling Stones, super fan of The Rolling Stones. If you recall, these guys made the Beatles look tame. His hair got longer and longer. Another favorite story, he was outside one-time during summer. He was painting the house, and cars were going by, screeching on the brakes, or stopping incredulously because what they saw was this beautiful young woman with a nice ass and no top on. So, one of the neighbors called, sputtering to mom about how your irregular this was, and mom being our little mama bear said, “I know. Doesn’t he have gorgeous hair?” Then, we all had a good laugh about it over dinner.

So, when a very conservative boys club like the Cub Scouts club started looking for a dirty hippie that they could use in an ad, promising that if the kid join the boys club, he wouldn’t turn out like this, guess who they called. So, this is Mike, posing in a dark street underpass in a hippie outfit that he never would have worn and smoking an unlit cigarette that he never smoked. They paid him $25 for this, which is about $170 today. So, we all had a good laugh about it over dinner, and then he autographed some of these photos, and we gave them out to our friends. He did not use that money to get a haircut. He used it to get out of Omaha and move to Oakland, California. My dad was already out there.

Mike started a hauling business, which included emptying out homes of people who’d either died or moved. One of the homes that he cleaned out belonged to an older woman who had dementia and who was going into a nursing home. He called me and said that he had found this beautiful beaded handbag, and he arranged to meet the woman and her son at the nursing home and told me that he was able to sit and listen to her tell the story of her life as the first black opera singer in this country. Then, he gave them the bag and the $20,000 that she had hidden in it and forgotten about. That’s who my brother was.

He also came out when he moved to San Francisco. We were so glad because we always felt like he was hiding something and finding out that he was only gay was a huge relief. A big part of why he moved out there was that he wanted to play music professionally, and so he would take his guitar and head down to Eli’s Mile High Studio, which is a famous smoky blues club in Oakland, I found out, and he would jam with the musicians on stage. When we were looking up Eli’s because I didn’t know anything about it, it turns out that The Rolling Stones tried to get in there one night, but the bouncer didn’t recognize them, and he turned them away. Michael would have died and gone to heaven if he had been there. As it was, he had to settle for another Rolling Stones story. He and a friend had apparently crashed a party that they were at one night, and before that they were escorted out politely, he got to talk to Keith Richards for about six seconds, so that was his trade-off.

He also really started immersing himself in health food. I’m showing you this postcard because we got one like this almost every week, but as time went on, it got to the point where we couldn’t tell what he was talking about because we were still living in McDonald’s double cheeseburger country, but the time I moved out to San Francisco, he and dad would invite me over, and we would have a tahini tempeh burger with mung sprouts, mashed peas and lecithin and fresh organic lettuces on whole grain rice bread. The only word I recognized on that whole menu was lettuce, and I didn’t even know that there was more than one kind.

He started expanding his horizons. He never ate plastic food again. He cleaned up his acne. He started running. He quit getting colds, and he also went from feeling like he didn’t have a lot to talk about, like he didn’t have a lot to offer to realizing that he was creating excitement in other people when he was talking about health. One of his personal goals when he left was that he wanted to leave behind the little boy with three broken arms and the closeted gay kid who was so easy to bully. So, I want to show you one of the ways that my brother lived his life, starting as a beanpole … and he turned into a hunk.

Then, when he was living in LA, he started Mike’s Fight Show, which was pretty unusual at that time, a place where older men and younger men could come together and let go of stereotypes and really identify themselves differently. I think it was important to him because he gave younger men a chance to experience themselves the way that he never could. He made friendships. He made community, and he made friendships, particularly with Luke and Mac that lasted for the rest of his life. Here’s one of the most impressive things. His last professional boxing exhibition was when he was 57 years old.

So, back to 1973, he told dad after all these fabulous meals, after all this time that they had put in learning how to eat right and paying attention to all the latest trends, he said, “Why don’t we start a vitamin company and change the world?” It sounds so much like him, but actually, what he wrote was, “Let’s start a nonprofit vitamin research co-op in a vitamin company making orthomolecular potency vitamins, and let’s create breakthroughs in the biochemistry of more people.” Clearly, outgrowing the postcards.

So, Mike and dad and Sandra Barrow started the business, and they were counting out receipts in a shoe box, and they were capping vitamins in the basement by hand. People started showing up in the basement and capping their own and having these fabulous, excited discussions about health and nutrition. Mike and dad developed the first … it was a high potent, full spectrum, orthomolecular multivitamin formula that was available. It’s called the Opti-Pack. Still exists today, and it was a defining moment when Dr. Abram Hoffer, who I can’t even do him justice, got behind them in this. He was a legendary medical doctor and a biochemist and psychiatrist, so he was a really strong voice from the Western medical model. He told them that he believed that nutrition played an important part in treating mental and physical illnesses and really encouraged them to start selling their products in health food stores.

With that impetus and support, they did, and it was a real beginning for SuperNutrition. So, for the launch of this product, Mike walked into every health food store in San Francisco and offered them a free full-page ad in the Gay Pride edition of the San Francisco Bay Guardian if they were willing to bring SuperNutrition products in, and he opened every single store with one ad. Companies started to get traction, and my sister, Kathy, came on board with a business degree, and then they really started humming. They ended up, in case you don’t know this, being a leader in the natural products industry for over 40 years. They started focusing on strategies and where they thought they could do the most good. They got the Dallas Cowboys taking the Opti-Pack. Their reviews started propelling SuperNutrition to the first national recognition that they got.

Then, in the late ’80s, the federal government decided that vitamins were dangerous, and they needed to be regulated, which, of course, would make them more less accessible and more expensive for the general public, all for the greater good, of course. Mike and dad both took a leave of absence from the company and basically went full bore into advocating for consumer rights. Michael co-founded the San Francisco branch of Citizens for Health, and he just started a campaign. He hit the streets. As someone told me, he was hard to ignore and even harder to refuse. He organized rallies all over the country, and he and dad worked on creating a one-minute PSA with Mel Gibson that aired nationally. They also created a one-hour infomercial with 20 celebrities like Whoopi Goldberg and Laura Dern. Then, they were part of a group that hand-delivered these media pieces to every single member of Congress.

Yes, sir.

Congressman Waxman, I-

Hello again.

Hi. I want to say that I think that you’re the one person who has the power and the intelligence to be able to establish a winning situation for the American people in Congress related to the dietary supplement bills.

We’re going to try.

To that end, I have a package here that has information that may help you as you work through that and a copy of the Mel Gibson Health Freedom video that’s starting to show on TV, and I have a statement. Pure science doesn’t yet fully understand the benefits of dietary supplements like herbs, for instance. It may take years before there is significant scientific consensus on what these benefits really are. Americans should be able to hear about natural products that may make their life better without delay. Therefore, I propose that health claims would be allowed, and if they aren’t yet FDA-approved claims, let it be known. If they are only preliminary, let it be known. If they have been used traditionally in China for thousands of years for some health problems, let it be known. Let information be freely accessed with no government or FDA censorship. What I’m asking you … Congressman Waxman, what I’m asking you to do is work toward establishing a more reasonable standard than the limits of scientific consensus.

I appreciate what you have to say, and I’ll look over this information and give it every consideration because I think we do have an opportunity for a win-win situation in making sure we clarify when it seems to be a murky are of the law.


Hey, guys. Got it. It’s only vitamins.

Vitamin C, you know? Like in oranges?

If you don’t want to lose your vitamins, make the FDA stop. Call the U.S. Senate, and tell them that you want to take your vitamins in peace. If enough of us do that, it’ll work.

Congressman Waxman said that it was the biggest, most successful letter-writing campaign, over one million letters that he had ever seen, and in 1994, the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act passed. Michael said he always saw the power in collaborating with people whose work had come out of their hides, had been motivated by their health problems, and they had a passion about it that other people didn’t.

In 1992, he met Dragomir Cioroslan. I hope I said that right, Dragomir, the coach of the Olympic weightlifting team at that time, and they had both conquered health problems, and so, there was a natural meeting of the minds. The U.S. team began using the Opti-Pack and reported the same kind of results that the Dallas Cowboys had. So, it was a milestone for the company, but it was also the beginning of a lifelong friendship between Dragomir and the Mooney family. That sense of family was an important part of how SuperNutrition worked.

During this time, Michael also met Lark, Lark Lands, who was a scientist and a medical editor and another pioneer with a medical history. She was an amazing human being and a really powerful partner for Mike’s work because they were aligned in wanting to develop integrative or holistic approaches, quality of life approaches for people with HIV.

In the simplest terms to me, the single most important thing for anyone living with HIV today is the restoration and then, the long term maintenance of a really healthy, intact body that can both benefit better from the drugs and help in the viral suppression and live with this disease process without symptoms, without toxicity from drugs, without side effects, and be able to live the healthy, simple, symptom-free life, which is what we would wish for everyone.

If you ask anybody who knew them, because they tell me about it, Michael and Lark influenced and saved the lives of thousand people around the world. As one friend put it, they were like quirky genius twins. So, when Lark got sick with cancer, it was really hard for Michael that he couldn’t help curing her. They were lifelong friends, and Lark died nine days after Michael did. I will just say here, I have no idea what happens after death, but I really hope he was waiting for her.

Then, Michael met Nelson Vergel in the early ’90s, and he was another one dealing with his own poor health history. He had actually become a very powerful champion, helping people with HIV wasting and body composition problems. So, he had opened his wellness center, which is now called PoWeR, the Program for Wellness Restoration, and it was too holistic. It had a gym and trainers and nutritional evaluations, supplements, body therapies, and stress management, so every aspect of wellness. Michael volunteered as his Director of Research. Then, in 1999, they co-authored a book called Built to Survive, which was a guide to living with AIDS in the year 2000, and it’s still being used today. They co-authored studies that were presented to the international conference on HIV and nutrition and at the Geneva AIDS Conference.

Then, they put together the world’s leading expert together at an international conference on AIDS wasting on their own. These were, at that point, revolutionary approaches, and gatherings to what had been considered hopeless situations and outcomes before. They were actually teaching the medical system things that they didn’t know. The reviews said that Built to Survive changed the standards of care for AIDS patients, but I think, as importantly for both of them, they heard frequently from the people whose lives they had changed and saved. All of the profits that they made from their book were donated to AIDS education and research.

During all of these years, Michael was a core moving part of SuperNutrition. They had gone from shoe boxes in the basement to hiring staff and moving into real offices, and they developed distribution networks, and they began real professional marketing. Michael was developing a solid national reputation as a go-to person with any kind of question. In his role as Director of Science and Education at SuperNutrition, he tracked down, and he monitored the cutting-edge scientific research that guided the design of every one of their product lines. He also developed presentations and trainings and made sure that suppliers and sales reps and stores were informed about what the next hot topic was, so part of what they offered the people that they worked with was the opportunity to stay on the cutting edge. So, SuperNutrition became a huge information resource not just for their customers, but for the public at large.

Mike and dad continued to bring in new products, put new ideas out into the world. They already had the top selling, high potency vitamin on the market, but next, they formulated a high potency multivitamin with super green fruits and herbs, and then their customers were telling them that they wanted to make it easier to take fewer pills without sacrificing quality, so they developed a one-a-day line, SimplyOne, which set another bar for the industry. Michael made sure along the way that the science backed up every single product that they had. There was one other aspect to the company that made this really successful and helped them thrive, and that was that because it was based on family values, they drew employees who had the same kind of pride and confidence in what they were selling and thought of themselves as a family and wanted to have fun with it. So, this is a picture of the staff who finally called themselves the super nuts.

He taught nationally. He held hundreds of trainings and educational support sessions for professional communities and just community in general public, but whether you knew him well or you only met him a couple of times, what people would always say is how charismatic he was and how smart and how approachable. He really made it easy for people to ask questions without feeling stupid. My father called me walking encyclopedia with a sense of humor, and he could make sophisticated information really simple, but he also had a wealth of deep knowledge for people who really wanted to take it farther. One person said to me when I was talking to them after he died, “When I was with Michael, I always felt like I was in school.”

In his files, he had letters from people all over the world, and they were also, they were often reaching out to him because they hadn’t found anybody who would listen to them or had any helpful suggestions for treatment options besides medication. I think he must have written back to almost everybody who ever wrote to him. I know sometimes, those correspondences went on for years. He didn’t just research. He also was really big at connecting people. So, he wrote for magazines like Muscle Media and the European AIDS Treatment News and Iron Man. He was interviewed and quoted on major TV networks and on radio and served as a consultant to the National Institute of Health as a researcher.

He was also the editor and publisher of Medibolics for a number of years as it shows you over there in that little picture. He served eight terms as the Political Committee Chairperson for the North Cal chapter of the Natural Products Association. For that work he did, passing the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, he received the Outstanding Health Freedom Activist Award from Citizens for Health, but honestly, out of all the things that he got recognition for, the one that meant the most to him was being inducted into the Natural Products Expo West Hall of Legends in 2015. He wasn’t that old.

First, I want to thank New Hope and everyone that made this possible. It was a huge, wonderful, humbling surprise to get the phone call two weeks ago. Then, there are a lot of individual people I thank because of the insights you’ve given me and the goodwill you’ve shared. The one person I want to thank now is my sister, Kathy. Kathy is the glue that holds the world of SuperNutrition together.

Hmm. He was a fervent activist politically and otherwise, on national and local levels, but he also was active in his West Hollywood community. Then, a couple of years ago, he decided it was time to trade that whole frenetic, no longer age-appropriate pace that he lived in, trade it in, and go someplace that fit more who he was becoming. So, he moved to Portland, Oregon. He said he wanted to live in cooler temperatures, and he wanted to be able to simplify and walk more, still get fresh organic food but also get more into the culture and the music scene, and really importantly, he also wanted to live in a city where they had integrated the gay community into the fabric. He was gathering everything he had learned about integrative medicine and life extension. He was creating a science-based vision of age reversal, and when he died, he was in collaboration with Dr. Robert Frost and was in the early stages of writing a book. He was already taking himself into the next direction.

I want to introduce you to two of the most important people in Michael’s chosen family, Sandy Gooch, and Harry Letterman. When Sandy was young, she was another pioneer who, excuse me, almost died from seizures that the doctors couldn’t diagnose, and it turns out, they were a combination of foods, medications, and a soft drink. Her response, which they figured it out, was to get herself healthy and then open a line of natural product stores that, and I quote, “led to the birth of the natural foods industry.” Eventually, she sold her Mrs. Gooch’s stores to Whole Foods, but she continues to be a model and a force politically and internationally. She and her husband, Harry, who had his own lustrous careers, and he had actually advised Sandy as she developed her business, so they were both pioneering. Here’s a side note. Harry also did something else that I just want to mention. He is the man who brought the beanbag chair to all of America, and that makes him particularly cool.

They helped Michael to become confident and savvy because at that point, there were no precedents. They were cutting a path as they went, so they became his mentors early, and he loved being able to toss ideas back and forth with them, not just about business, but about life in general. He said that they helped shape his philosophy and his professional knowledge and confidence and direction actually more than anybody else. So, for over half of his life, they were his advisors and his mentors and his colleagues and one of the reasons he became who he was. They were a big part of his heart, so great gratitude for Sandy and Harry. Starting to get choked up here a little bit now. I thought it would be nice to show you a little bit of my brother’s life in a different way.

It’s a sort of a folk style song in order of, say Woody Guthrie or … Do you remember Woody Guthrie? I wrote this. I think it’s the first song I wrote by saying I’m going to write a song, and I put a tape recorder next to my bed. I woke up at about 1:00 in the morning and wrote this song. It’s called I Ain’t Got Nothing to Say rather appropriately. I sing on this recording, and I play guitar, and a friend of mine plays bass and drums, and we recorded on his four-channel tape recorder in his living room. I think we recorded about 1977. So, here it goes, I Ain’t Got Nothing to Say by Michael Mooney. (singing) Well, that was I Ain’t Got Nothing to Say by yours truly.

Hmm. Like all of us, Michael was a really complex human being. He had some dark chapters in his life, and he had some really profound sadness, but he never sat still. He lived many different lives in six and a half decades, and across his life, my brother was a visionary. He was stubborn and vulnerable and brilliant and kind and grateful and generous. He was passionate, and in some ways, he was innocent. He was always ahead of the curve. My brother and my father were both boxers, and they both lived really hard in their bodies, and although they were both good boxers, they both took a lot of punches to the head. When dad died suddenly and painlessly of, they called it a cerebral event, probably an aneurysm, and when Michael died, although he was alone, from what they could tell us, it was also quick and painless.

So, when we talked over the years about what our dying might look like, this is exactly the way that he wanted to go. Although it was really hard that we didn’t have a chance to say goodbye, we’re grateful for that. When we began to go through his house, some of the things I found described way better than words who he really was. He was reading The Art of War by Lao Tzu, which is a 1,500-year-old text on how to think things strategically. He was also reading the Practical Kabbalah and the commemorative edition of Rolling Stones, celebrating Keith Richards’ 75th birthday. He left two Fender guitars, probably 2,000 bottles of vitamins and nutritional supplements, a library of books, files full of research, and sticky notes with ideas all over the place. He had also kept his third grade Christmas card from Mr. Wolbaum and a little white plastic horse with a missing tail that he had since he was three. We’ll really miss getting old with him and seeing what he would have come up with next because maybe we would’ve all been getting younger together. We love you, Michael.

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