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PASSAGES Remembering AIDS activist/volunteer Gerald 'Jerry' Pagorek
by Owen Keehnen

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Longtime community member and AIDS activist Gerald ( Jerry ) Pagorek died on Aug. 24 following a lengthy illness. He was 76.

Born June 7, 1943, on the South Side of Chicago, Pagorek attended St. Mary Magdalene Grade School and St. Frances de Sales HighSchool.

Following high school graduation, Pagorek moved north. With his natural eye for style, Pagorek soon was highly regarded for his window and retail displays at a number of upscale Chicago stores and boutiques in the 1960s and early 1970s. For several years, Pagorekalso owned and operated the posh flower shop Metropolis Floral, in the Belden Stratford. In addition, he was employed by Progress Printing during 1977-88.

When the AIDS epidemic hit Chicago, Pagorek was a shining example of an AIDS activist and volunteer. He was one of the formative members of Open Hand Chicago, helping to plan delivery routes, delivering meals and even driving the Open Hand van in the Pride Parade.

Pagorek's volunteerism during Chicago's peak AIDS years included such groups as the Names Project, the AIDS Walk and Howard Brown Health. When his community needed him, Pagorek was there, working through his personal grief and fears by being of service. His example was inspiring.

Pagorek was cared for in his illness by friends Jeff, Carmen and Darr, as well as Kathy and Wayne.

In addition to his numerous friends, Pagorek is survived by his sister and brother-in-law, Kathy and Wayne Van Tichelt.

Friends recalled Jerry as a kind man and a giving soul:

"I got to work with Jerry a lot as the AIDS crisis began to decimate Chicago. Amidst waves of sadness and anger and fear, Jerry was always a quiet rock of strength, comforting and compassionate to people in need, and donating untold hours helping those who were struggling or just needed a kind word. Jerry was a brave, kind soul and will be missed," said Illinois state Rep. Greg Harris.

Center on Halsted CEO Modesto Tico Valle said, "Jerry was one of those unsung heroes of our community. I knew him from the early days of the AIDS epidemic, volunteering wherever he was needed, caring for those we lost during an awful time in our history. In later years, he continued to be present at many events, lending a hand but never looking for recognition, simply giving a hug, a smile, and his support. He will be greatly missed."

"Jerry was a fountain of love, peace, and joy. I'm honored to have called him my best friend. Now he can design with the angels," said Darr Gapshis.

"When AIDS was raging, Jerry was a quiet warrior working or volunteering with Open Hand, the Quilt and The AIDS Walk. He continued to volunteer for the Legacy Project. He was steadfast and kind. He will be missed," stated Killian Walsh.

Bruce Koff added, "Jerry was a singular man with a big and compassionate heart. He was truly an unsung hero of the early days of the AIDS epidemic through his work with Open Hand Chicago. Although such selflessness was not uncommon in those days, his was constant and enduring. He made us all better at being human."

Carmen Sherwood said, "I loved him and always will. This man forced me to look at myself, accept responsibility for my actions, and to always be compassionate to others. My life is not the same because of him." Activist Lori Cannon added, "In life all you can really leave is a good name. Jerry Pagorek did just that. It was a real treat to work with that special and generous man all those early years when death had become a way of life for all of us. Thank you, sir, for all your memorable service to the AIDS community."

"Jerry was one of the most kind-hearted friends I've ever known. He could light up a room with his presence," said Paul Highfield, while Margaret Harris said, "Jerry's selflessness and service was natural. It was what he did. He was very compassionate and had a deep connection to spirit. Jerry was very Zen, and a great friend."

"From the first time I met Jerry I knew he was someone that was going to make a difference in our community. He fought along with all of us as we watched our friends die," said Dean Ogren. "He helped to drive the fundraisers and community events that brought us some light in those dark days. He had an eye for making an event just pop, whether it was the flowers, the lighting, or the venue itself. Jerry knew how make it special. I was always in awe of his talent that way. I looked up to him as a good friend and partner in the fun we all enjoyed when he was around. I will miss his laugh and dry wit."

To have known Jerry, as I have for over 50 years was a blessing. He was the most inclusive person I've ever known. Of course that meant he'd show up for a dinner party with one or two extra people. To say he'll be missed would be an understatement," said Sonny Coatar.

Lastly, Sharyl Holtzman said, "I got to know Jerry when I started volunteering at the Open Hand office, with founder Matthew Hamilton. AIDS raged around us. I looked at Jerry and said, this place isn't just somewhere to volunteer, it's where I want and need to be. Jerry took the steps to bring me on as first administrator.

"AIDS was relentless, stealing everyone away and through it all, Jerry was the picture of grace, compassion, generosity; he brought joy with his love of flowers and beautiful design, and laughter with his three-snap wit. He channeled his grief over his own seismic losses into working harder for the clients we served. I was fortunate and honored to work side by side with Jerry and call him my friend. He is irreplaceable."

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