Longtime LGBT activist and former Chicagoan John Chester passed away Oct. 10 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he had been living since retirement. He was 78.
Chester, who was inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame (now the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame) in 1994, was active in local politics and numerous local organizations, among them Hull House, Chicago House, Dignity/Chicago and Equality Illinois. He was a native of Michigan and worked as a telecommunications director for the Chicago airports.
Activist/consultant Rick Garcia, a close friend, said that "the state of Illinois owes him a debt of gratitude" for his activism.
Garcia knew Chester since the '80s. They first worked together on a campaign for U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, and Chester later approached Garcia, who was by then with Equality Illinois, to join in the work on the Illinois Human Rights Act.
"What's significant about that is that John Chester and I came from two political backgrounds," Garcia said. "He was a tried-and-true 'regular' Democrat, who worked through the system, and I was independent. In those days, we'd be at events and he'd give me the side-eye, and I'd give him the side-eye. But when it came time to do the state bill, he really put all of that aside to come and help me."
He further recalled that Chester "had an enormous amount of experience, such as doing lobby days [wherein activists and community members meet with legislators] in Springfield. He knew how Springfield worked. By this time, we became fast-and-furious friends."
Chester also served on the board of Equality Illinois. When he first saw the organization's expense sheet, he noticed that Garcia, then the organization's political director, was being paid last. Chester demanded that Garcia's pay take higher priority.
"At the next board meeting, he announced, 'We pay our staff first. Everyone else can wait,'" Garcia said. "He made sure that I had a salary and was was paid regularly. For me that was one of the most touching moments. He really grew the organization."
Among those politicians Chester also worked on behalf of were state Reps. Bruce Douglas, Susan Catania, Elroy Sandquist and Carol Ronen, and Ald. Mary Ann Smith. "John's fingerprints were all over 48th Ward politics," added Garcia.
"My heart is broken with the loss of my dear friend John Chester," said Schakowsky in a statement to Windy City Times." I am proud to have had his talents on my side when he regularly served as a top advisor, strategist and organizer as co-chair of my campaigns. He provided endless support and was always there to help. His larger than life personality helped us rise above the most challenging of situations.
"John was a tremendous asset to the Chicago community. His work ranged from advocating for health care reform to economic empowerment for the working poor. His heart was in his work for LGBT equality and progressive politics, where his efforts helped shape the early Chicago Human Rights Ordinance and elect public officials who embraced equality. I will miss him dearly."
Chester had broad and sophisticated tastes and interests. During his retirement, for example, he was a docent at Albuquerque Art Museum.
"He gave tours of the museumhe knew all the history, and every thing there," Garcia recalled. "He also gave walking tours of Old Town Albuquerque. He really loved history and the art world, and he loved to share."
Chester was also passionate about discovering new restaurants, he added. "He'd take us to the best places. Some of them were greasy spoons on a corner that nobody would go to, but they were excellent. He knew where all the excellence was."
Garcia emphasized that Chester could best be described as "a full person. He wasn't obsessed with anything other than living a good life, and justice. He knew you had to have a good sense of humor, and really enjoy life. That's what made him great."
Windy City Times staff