When Chicagoans Bob Wolf and Peter Tortorello met each other for the second time, during the Friday night cocktail hours at the now-defunct gay-owned restaurant-bar The Trip in Chicago's Streeterville neighborhood, in 1973, they knew right away that they were meant for each other.
Both Wolf and Tortorello were young professionals, and The Trip was the place to be seen for those who were just starting out in their careers and wanted to meet other gay men.
"We all had college degrees and great jobs, so we thought we were hot shit at that time," said Tortorello. "On Friday, October 19, 1973, I was with friends doing cocktails. A handsome blonde man walked up the stairs and caught my eye. As we were leaving for dinner, we saw him at the corner of Ohio and State, and asked him where they were going, [which was] the Fireside on Wells Street in Old Town. We followed them to the restaurant.
"Taunted by my friends to approach the blonde at a nearby table, I did, only to be ignored. His date did respond with a lovely hello. A week later the group was back at The Trip, cocktailing and looking. The blonde's date arrived, said hello again and that is when Bob and I introduced ourselves and started talking. I went to Bob's apartment that night on Bissell, [which backed] up to the train tracks. The passing rumble of the El was not a distraction."
Fifty years later, Tortorello and Wolf are celebrating their golden anniversary as a couple. On Oct. 28, the two Chicago natives hosted a bevy of friends and family at the InterContinental Hotel to mark their years together.
Two days after their first meeting in 1973, Tortorello moved out of his parents' home into an apartment on Barry Street with the help of long-time friends, his mother and Wolf. Although the two men lived in different apartments, Wolf spent the first night at Barry and fundamentally never left. They moved in together within that year. They have been together, apart from two very temporary and painful breakups for a few months, ever since.
"One of the really darling parts of the story is shortly after we met, Peter was turning 25 and his mother was hosting a dinner so there were eight gay men around the table," said Wolf. "Peter had a younger sister named Paula, and when I was introduced to the family, she thought Peter was bringing me home to meet her. Many years later, Peter's mother said, 'Why don't you like Paula?' At that point we had not announced we were gay but it should have been obvious. We had just relocated to Texas together at that point."
Before Wolf and Tortorello became a couple, they were students at DePaul University at the same time. Wolf was a freshman and Tortorello was a sophomore and their paths crossed, although neither of them remembered that meeting.
In Tortorello's role as Sophomore Class President (and later Junior Class President and Treasurer of Student Counsel), he conducted freshman orientation when a woman, Camille, in the first row caught his eye. He encouraged her to be a candidate for Beanie Queen, but she needed a King by her side. Ironically, Wolf was her choice.
Turns out Camille was the only woman Wolf ever dated. Then Tortorello swooped in and Camille was at his side for two years, becoming the "Sweetheart" of his Tau Kappa Epsilon Fraternity. She split with him, after realizing that his interest in intimacy with her was lacking. Bob once thanked Tortorello's mother for not liking Camille, a comment that brought both chuckles and sneers.
Knowing early on
Both men grew up Catholic and knew they were gay at an early age. Tortorello had same-sex encounters while in his teens, as well as one at a fraternity function he attributed to the "golly, was I drunk last night excuse." Many of his friendssons of his parents' friendscame out as gay years later. Tortorello joked that he blames it on the water on the Northwest Side of Chicago and finishing school at St. Patrick.
Wolf grew up in the Back of the Yards. He attended DePaul Catholic Minor Seminary and his first gay discovery occurred during summer break with other teens his age.
"There was a major rainstorm during that fair, and he came to my parents' home to spend the night," said Wolf. "We had sex on and off during the summer and whenever I came home. Late in my senior year, I admitted to the Spiritual director that I thought I was a homosexual. He told me that I could not continue to study for the priesthood unless I got professional help to change my inclinations. I began seeing a psychologist for the next several months.
"Rather than change my sexuality, I finally decided to live my life as a gay man. My parents paid for the treatment, but I never told them why I needed it. They finally stopped asking. It was not until I was diagnosed with HIV and decided to leave work on disability that I told them I was gay and HIV positive. Just before my mother died, she made the comment that '...your Dad always knew.'"
Tortorello's coming out process progressed slowly. He dated several women in college and in graduate school. It was at Northern Illinois University that a classmate unexpectedly kissed him. He played "grab ass" with his roommate, Jon. Eventually he went to his first gay bar, The Locker, in Rockford.
After graduation he was on a double date with his fraternity pledge father, Rich, and their "girlfriends." He dropped off his date and went to The Trip for the first time. There was Rich. With that, they both ended their hetero relationships, starting their lives as out gay men. Friday's tradition was to go to the gym, meet up at The Trip for cocktail hour, have dinner, change into disco threads and go to The Bistro, Chicago's version of Studio 54. At that time, customers would see both gays and straights dancing to Barry White's "Love Theme."
After receiving his MBA from Northern Illinois University, Tortorello worked for UARCO and Xerox in Chicago and Houston, Texas, where the couple lived for 10 years.
When Wolf graduated from DePaul, he got a job at Standard Oil in Naperville and later at its Chicago office. Soon after Wolf transferred to the Chicago office, a senior manager who reported to HR's VP invited him out to lunch where he would insist that Wolf drink martinis.
"If I got up to the men's room during these lunches, he would follow me, look down at my penis and grab my behind," said Wolf. "He would do the same thing in the elevator back at work.
"I tolerated his behavior because I had been told that he was the man who made all the assignments for staffing across the country and around the world. He knew I was in a relationship with Peter. After two years, he began asking me to accept a transfer. The locations were remote and made it highly unlikely that Peter would have found suitable employment. I found another job and resigned."
When the couple moved to Houston, Wolf worked at Haskin and Sells.
Health and work concerns
Houston was a happening place in the early 80's, and this was not the best time in their relationship. They separated for several months but got back together when their family came to town to celebrate Thanksgiving. It was shortly after that Wolf started running temperatures, an early indication that something was wrong.
That same year they lost 40 acquaintances to the AIDS epidemic. Frightened, they decided to move back to Chicago. Two years later, Wolf was diagnosed with HIV. With the support of Drs. Tom Klein and Keith MacDonnell, as well as others, and the loving relationship that he has shared with Tortorello, Wolf is now a long-term survivor and is undetectable.
Tortorello worked at a few software firms as well as Oliver Wight, a premiere manufacturing consulting firm, and Oracle. Wolf became Director of Human Resources at Arthur Young, and Ernst and Young, following a merger.
Tortorello told this publication that the Oracle job was challenging. When he was on a call with his then manager, who had sung his praises and told him he was on the right track, he asked Tortorello how many children he had and if he was married.
"And just like that I went from being a super star to being put on a performance plan," said Tortorello. "Several weeks later I was let go. I sued Oracle in 2002 for discrimination, an issue in Chicago and Cook County. The first hearing found for me, and the next step was a trial. My attorney recommended not pursuing the case because Oracle had deep pockets and I did not. I settled for a meager amount, basically six month's pay."
Until recently, Tortorello was a real estate agent for two decades with Berkshire Hathaway Home Services.
Six months after starting his Arthur Young position, Wolf's boss took him to lunch and told him he "knew I was gay for about three months, and I had better keep it a secret from top management in the office and region. This led to me going on long term disability. I hired an attorney to inform the managing partner of my situation so that I would not be fired before my claim was approved. Today, this organization is one of the most highly -rated employers by HRC and Lambda Legal Defense, and I believe I played a part in them making the changes they did to get those ratings."
Road to recovery
Twelve-Step Programs started Wolf and Tortorello toward recovery and better mental health. Wolf found Alcoholics Anonymous, while Tortorello joined Al-Anon; these organizations were "a lifesaver" for them, and there they met new, supportive friends. The couple also went to therapy together and Tortorello continued with individual therapy to address his own traumas.
During the '90s, Tortorello lost childhood friends to AIDS and when he told his parents that Wolf was HIV positive, they were terrified for him.
"Peter and I beat the odds because he never wavered in his support," said Wolf. "He never treated me like a leper and was there through it all. I used to take one of the early AIDS medications in the morning as I was getting ready to go to work. Peter would drive me from Sheridan Road to Downtown Chicago and he would have to pull off the road so I could vomit because the medication was so toxic."
To celebrate their 20th anniversary on October 26, 1993, the couple held a "Celebration of 20 years of Commitment" at the InterContinental Chicago (where their recent 50th anniversary celebration took place). That is what they consider their official coming out party.
In 2001, theyalong with their best friends, Chris and Chuckexchanged civil union vows in Vermont. Unfortunately, both of them woke up that morning with high temperatures and slept for two days. They went on to Ogunquit, Maine, for their honeymoon after stopping by Ben and Jerry's.
Twelve years later, on October 26, 2013, they returned to Manchester Center, Vermont (the place where the Green Mountain Boys planned the American Revolution) and were married at the Vermont Art Center, followed by a dinner with 20 family members. On June 1, 2014, their civil union certificate was converted into a 2001 marriage license in Hinsdale in DuPage County. County staff applauded this as the first same-sex marriage in DuPage County.
The couple has always been politically active, having worked for the Clinton, Kerry, Obama and Biden campaigns. In 2008 they were in Grant Park, just 20 feet from the stage. Oprah stood behind them. Wolf was the Obama Campaign Data Manager at the Hyde Park office in 2012, and met with the president on Election Day. Tortorello and Wolf were present in Washington for the second Obama inauguration and danced at the HRC Inauguration Ball.
For the past 30 years, the couple has supported Lambda Legal and its founder Pat Logue; Center on Halsted, Equality Illinois, the Human Rights Campaign, Heartland Alliance and the Night Ministry. In 1993, they hosted 50 guests at the annual HRC Chicago event.
In all of these efforts, Wolf said, "We are most interested in programs that help Seniors and work with the younger members of our community."
As for their hobbies, Wolf is an avid reader, a Wordle fanatic and fine home chef. They host dinners throughout the year and especially in the holidays and for the past 30 years, they have hosted family and friends for Christmas Dinner in their home. They have a second home in Sawyer, Michigan, where Tortorello enjoys gardening, bicycling and hiking. They have traveled to all seven continents, and cruised the entire length of the Amazon, as well as around South America, Antarctica, Alaska, the Mediterranean, the Caribbean and the Galapagos Islands. They are patrons of the Joffrey Ballet, Lyric Opera and Broadway and local theaters as well.