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PASSAGES Olga "Augie" Flanigan, of Augie & C.K.'s bar
by Gretchen Rachel Hammond
2017-02-09

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"Daylight. I must wait for the sunrise. I must think of a new life and I mustn't give in." — "Memory," from the musical Cats.

To everyone who knew Olga "Augie" Flanigan—whether her partner of 41 years Cary McNamara, their close friends, those thousands who frequented first Augie's bar and then Augie & C.K.'s—the words of Flanigan's favorite song "Memory" have a particularly profound meaning following her unexpected death from an illness Feb. 5, 2017.

Flanigan never gave in. The bar she founded at the dawn of the LGBT movement—because her preternatural business ability correctly judged the need for a lesbian bar on Halsted Street in Lakeview ( long before it was a thriving community hub )—became the epicenter of a boisterous and free new life for the many hundreds of women who crammed inside on a Saturday evening dancing until the sunrise.

Born on May 10, 1932 to an Italian family, Flanigan was a lifelong Chicagoan who grew up on the North Side and attended Robert A. Waller High School. Although she started her career as an office worker, for Flanigan, her destiny as a pioneering bar owner was always in the stars.

"I remember her telling me that in those days, they would go to lesbian bars in Calumet City [Indiana]," longtime friend and former bartender at Augie & C.K.'s Maryanne O'Malley told Windy City Times.

According to a 2012 interview she gave in Windy City Times, Flanigan opened Augie's at 3729 N. Halsted Street in 1972 "because there were no girls' bars. I had just come back from a trip to Puerto Rico, and they had a beautiful girls' bar. And that inspired me."

"She wanted to provide a safe and fun gathering spot for lesbians that was run and owned by lesbians," O'Malley said. "Back in those days, men ran those bars. Augie was one of the first to change that. Halsted was nothing then. There was nothing there. She was visionary even way back then."

According to Windy City Times writer Jamie Anne Royce, "[Augie's] quickly became a community for the regulars. They formed sports leagues, participated in the annual Pride Parade, and hosted picnics."

It was as a sponsor of a softball team that Flanigan was to meet a South Side woman who, for more than four decades, ensured that Flanigan never smiled alone.

"It was 1975 and Cary and I were playing softball together," O'Malley recalled. "Augie was the sponsor of the other team. Augie spotted Cary and she used to always say that the first things she noticed were Cary's blue eyes, how good of a player she was. So Augie recruited her for her team and they won the championship. I went away to college and my friends would write me letters and say 'Cary is dating Augie!' We were like, 'that'll never last.'"

They were wrong.

Although the couple had a 20-year age gap, O'Malley said they worked beautifully together.

"The age difference was never an issue because Augie was young at heart," O'Malley said. "In 1979, Flanigan merged her bar with C.K.'s [owned by Carol Kappa], which was then located on West Diversey." The new business opened at 3726 N. Broadway. Today it is the site of Charlie's bar.

O'Malley remembered that "on a Saturday night, the line of people to get into Augie & C.K.'s would be down Broadway. It was so popular. Sometimes women would get there extra early just so they could make sure they had a table to sit at. It was open until 5 a.m. on Saturdays and, even at 5 a.m., that bar was packed."

One customer told Windy City Times writer Sukie De La Croix, "I used to go to Augie & C.K.'s but I would get there very late in the evening. I worked in a place where we wore long black evening gowns and I would be in such a hurry to get to Augie and C.K.'s that I wouldn't even change out of my gown. I'd hop in a cab and get down there half an hour, or sometimes 15 minutes, before they were going to close."Augie & C.K.'s

Former bartender Victoria "Pickles" Martinez told Windy City Times, "It was just a lot of fun back in those days. You can ask anybody that used to go in that bar. Everyone would just be at Augie & C.K.'s."

Tragedy struck in 1984 when the loaded gun C.K. carried accidentally discharged and killed her. The community was in shock but Flanigan would not give in to the loss of her business partner. Instead, her life partner McNamara took over and the couple kept Augie & C.K.'s open until 1994.

"Augie was pragmatic about her business, but 100 percent Italian so she was also very passionate," O'Malley said. "Cary already knew the bar business from her own family so it was a no-brainer and they made it work."

"Cary was the people person and Augie was the business person," O'Malley added. "Certain nights Cary would be there. Other nights Augie would. But Augie was very friendly, laughing all the time and fun. She could swear like a truck driver! She wasn't politically active but she did her part personally. She sponsored bowling teams, darts teams; it was a sense of family and a sense of community. Augie talked to everyone. Any woman who came out in the '70s and '80s and who lived in or passed through had some kind of connection, with Augie & C.K.'s."

"The bar was hard work. It was just in my blood," Flanigan once said. However, it was also very much a part of the community's bloodstream and not just for women living on the North Side of Chicago.

"They came from the suburbs, from Wisconsin, from Indiana because it was the place," O'Malley said. "I know friends who met at Augie & C.K.'s and are still together."

When they weren't working to keep Augie & C.K.'s running at capacity, Flanigan and McNamara enjoyed traveling, sometimes together, sometimes separately."

"They used to go to Mexico together," O'Malley said. "Augie loved to go to Las Vegas and Cary had a Harley so there were times they would each go on their own trips."

Regardless, they were never apart for longer than a week.

"They loved their home out near O'Hare airport," O'Malley recalled. "They loved to have friends over for dinner. They still did all the way until Augie got sick."

After Flanigan and McNamara closed Augie & C.K.'s they moved to Plainfield, Illinois to be closer to family. They spent retirement together traveling and still hosting evenings for friends.

"They were soulmates of course," O'Malley said. "Different in many ways but they respected each other's differences to the point that they just complemented each other. They were a fixture in the community. It was always Augie and Cary or Cary and Augie. We really respected that. You couldn't imagine it being any other way and they had a really magical life together. It was a South Side meets North Side Chicago love affair."

Flanigan's illness occurred shortly after the couple celebrated 41 years together.

"She went into hospital for something really minor," O'Malley said. "She just deteriorated. Cary was expecting for her to be released on Sunday. Cary has a very large, supportive family and lots of friends but she is just devastated. She told me that she wants people to remember 'Aug' not as an activist but as a provider of a fun safe-haven for thousands of women."

"Life was beautiful then," Flanigan's favorite song serves not only to recall the heyday of Augie's and C.K.'s but every day that she and McNamara spent together. "I remember the time I knew what happiness was. Let the memory live again."

"Augie was an icon, a pioneer in many ways," O'Malley said. "But her legacy will be Cary, her friends and her family."

Flanigan was preceded in death by her son Billy. She is survived by McNamara, sister Theresa and brother Frank, and many nieces and nephews.

Viewing will be Feb. 10 at Cumberland Funeral Home, 8300 W. Lawrence Ave., Norridge, 3-9 p.m.

The funeral will be held Feb. 11.


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