Laird Petersen died from a series of infections Oct. 6 in Richmond, Va.; he was 53. The gay communities and citizens of Illinois and Virginia have lost a true life crusader. A Chicago native, Petersen contributed nearly 30 years of service to Chicago's LGBT communities and counts more than $12 million he raised for LGBT community-based organizations.
Petersen was a board member and director of development for Gay Horizons ( now the Center on Halsted ) and helped lead the agency out of a $190,000 deficit into a $1.2 million budget. He was the director of prevention services for the AIDS Foundation of Chicago ( AFC ) , a staff member of the Illinois Federation for Human Rights and a program director for the Chicago Department of Public Health's STD/HIV/AIDS Public Policy and Programs Division.
"Laird was a fierce and fearless advocate, and always quick with a laugh and a smile," said Mark Ishaug, head of the AIDS Foundation of Chicago. "He inspired me and countless others, and our work, especially in HIV prevention, has been deeply informed by his insights and experiences. He will be sorely missed."
Petersen also served with the Illinois HIV Prevention Community Planning Group and the Urban Coalition for HIV/AIDS Prevention Services, and co-chaired the Chicago Forum on HIV and Aging.
He was chief of staff to Illinois State Rep. Larry McKeon for two years and, most recently, director of social services at Fan Free Clinic in Richmond.
AFC Director of Advocacy Jim Pickett said: "I blame him for getting me into the HIV/AIDS racket. Back when I was the editor of a sassy ( obnoxious ) gay rag called GAB, he convinced me to join HPPGthe HIV Prevention Planning Group. I was walking in Boys Town ( summer 1999 ) … and Laird came by on his bike and asked me if I was interested. I had never heard of it, and I couldn't even remember what each of the letters stood for minutes after hearing them. It sounded boring and maybe not something I wanted to do, but he was insistent, and so, and so … I applied and was accepted into the group. This is a HUGE reason why HIV/AIDS became my passion and my career. I owe so much of it to you Laird. You saw something beyond 'predictably unsavory'. And I say that sincerely, and with deep gratitude."
Former Horizons Executive Director Bruce Koff said, "There are many wonderful but largely unsung heroes in our community. Laird was among them. Through his devotion and tireless work for Horizons in numerous capacities from the early 1980s, he inspired hundreds of volunteers and donors and left a legacy from which future generations will benefit. I will always remember his gentle humor, his calm in the storm of the AIDS crisis, and his unwavering generosity of spirit."
Another former Horizons executive director, Thomas Buchanan, said that "when I first met Laird, and we were figuring out how to come out of a deep hole at Horizons, we had lunch one day on Belmont. We walked past the old Petersen Furniture Co. building on Belmont near Sheffield, long out of business and out of the family. But the bronze letters in the sidewalk said, 'What Petersen Promises, Petersen Delivers!' He was so proud of that quote from his grandfather, and I imagine the sidewalk is still there. I also remember dressing in a room at the Drake for the first Human First we did together, and him showing me his cuff links, inherited from the Hawaiian royal family through his mother's side of the family. He was so proud of his parents and siblings, and gave everything he did his all. … He also had great legs!"
Former Chicagoan Barbara Raab wrote, "I knew Laird from the original Horizon days. I can still hear his hearty, throaty laugh."
Petersen was diagnosed with HIV 27 years ago and has been helping people his whole life. He was inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame in 2006. Anyone who knew Petersen well knows he threw one hell of a party.
Petersen is survived by his partner of 16 years, Joe Price; sisters Brooke, Barbara and Amy; and brothers Nick ( Camille ) , Christian, Mark ( Cindy ) and Jim ( Nancy ) .
In lieu of flowers, please make a donation, either food or financial, to Fan Free Clinic, 1010 North Thompson, P.O. Box 6477, Richmond, Va., 23230.
There will be an open house memorial celebrating Petersen's life on Sunday, Oct. 24, 3-6 p.m., at 5000 E. Seminary, Richmond, Va.
Chicago Memorial for Laird Petersen
A Chicago memorial has been set for former Chicago activist Laird Petersen, who died recently. The tribute will be Saturday, Nov. 20, 11 a.m.-2 p.m., at the Center on Halsted, Hoover-Leppen Theatre, 3656 N. Halsted, Chicago.
In lieu of flowers, donations in Laird's memory can be made to: The Center on Halsted, 3656 N. Halsted St., Chicago, IL 60613.