Bob Egan could have had a job in the LGBT community years ago. He knows enough people, has put in enough time and has seen the evolution of enough organizations to make him a community figure. However, he had other ideas about how to give to his community.
From his early days raising funds for budding LGBT groups to his current position at Center on Halsted, Egan has only ever donated one significant thing to the LGBT community: his time.
Egan is a lifetime LGBT volunteer.
"I've never been a protester or an activist," he said, sitting at a table in the John Baran Senior Center at Center on Halsted, where he serves lunches on Tuesdays. "I never marched in anything."
He has never signed over large checks to organizations, either, although he has donated the occasional resource from time to time. He wants to know that what he donates will go directly to those who need it. So he donates his service.
Egan has been a part of Chicago's gay scene since before he even knew what it was. The 73-year-old grew up on the city's South Side. In his spare time, he took the bus to Promontory Point, a spot near the Museum of Science and Industry where he knew he could look at men in swimsuits.
"I would take my little watch off and say, 'Sir, can you tell me the time?'" Egan recalled, laughing.
It was the early 1950s, long before Stonewall and before Egan would understand he was gay.
In the end, he never came out. He simply lived his life.
Egan began volunteering in the mid 1970s, when he found the Lincoln Park Lagooners, a group founded to provide a social alternative to Chicago's gay bar scene. He had started by collecting money donations at parties, the proceeds of which went to Howard Brown Health Center.
In 1986, he began volunteering directly at Howard Brown. While there, Egan witnessed the rise of the AIDS crisis. He watched those he had volunteered with at Lincoln Park Lagooners come out of the doctor's office with positive test results.
"You could just tell the ones that got bad news," he said. "It was an emotional time."
The AIDS crisis pulled Egan further into volunteering. He worked on Chicago's first NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, and he donated hours to Open Hand Chicago ( now the Vital Bridges Center on Chronic Care ) .
One day at Open Hand, another worker handed him a list of names and told him to pull files of those on the list because they had died.
"I was going through the list, and it was like going through my phone book," he said. He knew at least half the names on the list.
Egan stayed with Open Hand until 1998.
Eight years prior, while out cruising, Egan had met Warren, the man he would spend the next 22 years with ( they are still together ) . The two bought a house in the late 1990s, and Egan took a break from volunteering to remodel it.
His hiatus from volunteer work lasted about a year. In 1999, he took a volunteer position at Gerber/Hart Library and Archives, the city's LGBT library, where he would remain for 10 years.
When Egan was ready to leave Gerber/Hart in 2009, he called on one of the first people he volunteered with: Modesto "Tico" Valle, CEO of the Center on Halsted. He asked if Valle needed any volunteers.
"He said, 'Be here on Tuesday morning," Egan said.
Three months later, Egan went through the Center's volunteer training. Three years later now, he is still a volunteer at the Center.
Asked why Egan never turned his service into a career, he can only shrug.
"I don't know what I would apply for," he said with a chuckle. "I'm just a character. What more can I say?"
Egan did have a career during the early years of his service, a fact he relays with about as much as enthusiasm as one might give an explanation of how to toast bread. He worked as a supervisor in the underwriting department of an insurance company.
But his life's work has always been unpaid.
He confesses that his service has not always been perfect. He worries that he can be too bossy.
"I've always been sort of an organized and take charge kind of person," he said, adding that his maybe this enthusiasm might not always be welcome.
These days, Egan volunteers four hours a week. He works the Tuesday senior lunch shift, setting up the chairs, coffee and food before heading to the front table to sign in people. He is the first to arrive to the Center on Tuesdays, said Britta Larson, senior services director.
"Bob is generally waiting for the door to be unlocked," said Larson.
Egan arrives at 8 a.m., a half hour before the other volunteers start and a full hour before most staffers arrive. He is often the first on scene and the first to solve any major problems, like finding the senior center in disarray on mornings when it should be ready for lunch. It is Egan who makes the calls and sorts out things.
The Center's senior-services program works with approximately 500 seniors a year. Lunch, served three days a week, is the program's most popular of its activities. Just two staffers work in senior services, making the program reliant on volunteers like Egan.
Egan, a senior himself now, sees many of his contemporaries come in for meals at the Center, people he volunteered with in the early days. He will celebrate his 74th birthday this month, but he said he is not slowing down yet.
Larson seemed to agree. "Things change. People move on," she said. "But Bob is always here."