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PASSAGES Businessman, philanthropist Martin Gapshis dead at 63
2010-09-08

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Martin Gapshis, an LGBT community leader and philanthropist, died Aug. 30 of a heart attack. He was 63.

Gapshis was a lifelong Chicagoan with wide-ranging political and philanthropic interests. He supported Heartland Alliance, the Chicago International Film Festival, and Lakefront Supportive Housing, and raised funds and made donations to Democratic political candidates from Carol Moseley-Braun to Barack Obama. Gapshis served on the emeritus board of Cinema/Chicago and on the Costume Council of the Chicago History Museum.

A friend of Mayor Richard M. Daley, Gapshis also served on the Mayor's Executive Committee for Greening Projects. In 1995, Daley declared Feb. 10 "Martin Gapshis Day" in recognition of Gapshis being honored as the "Biggest Heart in Chicago" by the Hearts Foundation, a now-defunct HIV/AIDS fundraising group.

Gapshis' work in the LGBT community was not flashy, although it was deeply felt: In May, he received the Center on Halsted's Human First award in honor of his work raising funds for the Center's construction. Gapshis and Patrick Sheahan, co-chairs of the capital campaign, raised $20 million for the LGBT community center, which opened in 2007.

Longtime LGBT activist Amy Maggio, with whom Gapshis worked on the Center on Halsted campaign, remembered him as "an elegant man."

Maggio told Windy City Times, "He was a passionate, passionate man about our community, and about many communities. A wonderful, beautiful light went out in our community."

Gapshis was born in 1946 in the Bridgeport neighborhood. His father, Stanley Gapshis, was the founder of Progress Printing, the business Gapshis inherited and ran until his death. After attending De La Salle High School, he left Chicago to attend college elsewhere—but only briefly. In a May interview with Windy City Times, Gapshis said that it was natural for him to return to the city and take over the family business.

"I had printing ink running in my blood," he said. As for staying in Chicago, "I love Chicago and I think it's the finest city in the country. I wouldn't want to live anywhere else."

A press release announcing the Human First award credited Gapshis and Progress Printing with making in-kind donations to "virtually every not-for-profit organization in the city." Gapshis told Windy City Times that Progress Printing published, in 1942, the first issue of Negro Digest, the magazine that would eventually become Ebony.

In the earliest days of the AIDS crisis, Gapshis said, Progress Printing made donations to then-nascent organizations like AIDS Foundation of Chicago and Test Positive Aware Network. Also involved with the NAMES Project and Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS, Gapshis was inducted in 2007 into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame, which recognized him for "demonstrating a quiet commitment to improving the lives of others."

"He was full of life," said his sister, Darr Gapshis, "an extraordinary human being. A philanthropist is what he really was, at heart."

Michael Kutza, founder of the Chicago International Film Festival, said that he met Gapshis when Gapshis was 16 years old and Kutza placed an order with Progress Printing. After being introduced to Martin by Stanley Gapshis, Kutza said, "We remained friends forever. He's very much a part of my family."

Kutza said that for all Gapshis' varied political and cultural interests, "His cause definitely was gay rights. And the Center [ on Halsted ] became a real focal point."

Darr Gapshis echoed these comments. While other passions included art, ballet, gardening, theater and film, Darr Gapshis said, "The Center on Halsted—the dedication to the Center on Halsted—that was his main cause." She said that her brother's work was largely motivated by the number of close friends he had lost to AIDS. "Martin was just determined to help stop AIDS," Darr Gapshis said.

Regarding his receipt of the Center's Human First Award, Martin Gapshis told Windy City Times in May, "The people who are working in the building—they're the ones who are making the difference. They're the ones who are deserving of the awards. They are the real heroes.

"I take a small part of the credit. I was a little cog in the wheel. It was a big wheel. There were lots of cogs."

In a statement, Daley said, "As Mayor and on behalf of the City of Chicago, I offer my deepest condolences to the family and friends of Martin Gapshis. He was my friend and a friend to all of Chicago.

"I am especially proud of the legacy Martin leaves this city in the Center on Halsted, the most comprehensive lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender ( LGBT ) community center in the nation.

"Martin possessed a passion for the arts, politics, and community involvement. He served both the city and its LGBT communities throughout most of his adult life, demonstrating a quiet commitment to improving the lives of others. For his many contributions and accomplishments, Martin was inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame in 2007."

"In his understated way, Martin always worked hard to make a difference, demonstrating his belief in the basic human rights that must be secured for all. He was a leader and role model for LGBT communities, not only for all his contributions and accomplishments, but for his ever-present humility and the depth of his kind and generous spirit."

Martin Gapshis is survived by siblings Darr and Nina Gapshis, and brothers-in-law Ron Veltman and Frank Lemke. A public memorial is planned for 11 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 12, at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington, with a reception to follow. In lieu of flowers, a donation can be made in the name of Martin Gapshis to Center on Halsted, Harris Theater or Lakefront Supportive Housing.


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