Metro

Yvonne Abraham

One man’s mission to remember and honor those lost to AIDS

Bob Quinn with six of his scrapbooks.
ELSA DORFMAN
Bob Quinn with six of his scrapbooks.

So many were lost. Nobody could possibly mark them all. But Bob Quinn was going to try.

Day after day, he clipped obits and articles and photographs, filling scrapbooks with the names and faces of the dead: Jeff Taylor Abbott of Somerville, gone at 37; journalist Chris Adams, 43; Boston banker Michael Marseglia, 43; Systems analyst Stephen Quimby, 45. They were cut down by the tens of thousands, as AIDS tore through gay communities, and others.

It’s hard to imagine that time now, before gay marriage and equal rights and protease inhibitors. But for almost two decades, there was panic, resignation, shame, and devastating loss. During the 1980s and 1990s, it seemed like everybody knew somebody who was already gone, or soon would be.

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Quinn could never keep up with all of them. But he didn’t want them to be forgotten. He raced to collect them, starting in 1983. Death was coming for him, too. Would anyone remember him?

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“You couldn’t forget him,” said John Podolske, who met Quinn in 1992, when Quinn was a patient at the Hospice at Mission Hill, where hundreds who had contracted HIV/AIDS spent their final days at the height of the epidemic. “You don’t meet anybody like Bob.”

After throwing one last Christmas party (it was July, and a friend had to go north to cut down a tree), Quinn moved into the hospice with his scrapbooks, his dozens of commemorative plates (he was partial to ducks), and his dizzying trove of tchotchkes. He proceeded to light the place up.

“He was hysterical,” said David Begley, a lawyer who became friends with Quinn through the buddy program at The AIDS Action Committee. “And he was a wise-ass. He kept people happy, and distracted from dying.”

He wasn’t looking forward to death, Begley said. “But if he was going to die . . . he was going to do it on his own terms.”

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Quinn loved the attention he got at the hospice, but he was less crazy about the rules, especially after the death that seemed so imminent failed to arrive. Sometimes he just wanted a cigarette, or a drink. One day, annoyed that he could have neither, Quinn jumped out a first-floor window and took off to New York for a few days. When he returned, he was deemed to be not quite as close to death as previously believed and was asked to leave.

There were many reprieves like that, said Begley. He’d get calls from the hospital asking him to rush over, because Quinn was rigid and unresponsive. He was always up hours later, asking for a cigarette.

Every time doctors changed Quinn’s medication, he’d nose-dive, Podolske said. But after a night in the hospital, he usually came good. He believes new medications — antriretroviral therapy revolutionized treatment for HIV/AIDS in 1995 — slowed the progression of Quinn’s illness.

So, every year, Quinn held one more very last Christmas party. He’d deck out his apartment by Symphony Hall, and fill tables with party food he’d buy using the coupons he clipped compulsively. He’d dress in some crazy costume — usually in drag — and wrap little gifts for everyone in the family he’d collected around himself. (He was estranged from his siblings in New York for many years, though they eventually reconnected.)

Between Christmases, the former seminarian attended Mass at St. Cecilia’s every Sunday. When he was weak, he rode up Mass. Ave. in his motorized chair, its rainbow flag flapping behind him. Quinn delighted and maddened his friends. He demanded way too much, and it was hard to say no to him. Podolske’s partner sometimes grew frustrated that Quinn was taking up so much of his time. And he could be difficult.

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“Sometimes he would get mad at people and force them out of his life,” Podolske said. “He tried to get angry with me a few times, but it didn’t work. He was a complicated guy, but he was a good guy.”

All the while, Quinn collected the dead, clipping newspapers and filling pages.

He had completed six scrapbooks when photographer Elsa Dorfman photographed him in 1994, as part of a project on the AIDS crisis.

“It was such an emotional day,” Dorfman recalled. “Everybody lost people. The pages I photographed were of people I had known. It’s hard to convey now how scary it was.”

Twenty-six scrapbooks and nine final Christmas parties later, on Jan. 19, 2002, Robert John Quinn finally succumbed to his illness. He had just turned 50. Just before sunrise, Podolske held Quinn’s hand as his breathing slowed, then stopped.

“I think he was finally ready to let go,” he said.

Quinn’s death notice made no mention of his illness. At that time, 40 million people worldwide were living with HIV, 5 million of them newly infected in 2001, and 3 million people died from the disease. Today, about 36 million people worldwide live with HIV, with just under 2 million new infections each year, and 1 million AIDS-related deaths.

Quinn had had plenty of time to plan for his death. He compiled a long list of who was to get what, down to every last commemorative plate. He wanted his ashes scattered on the grave of a man he’d loved.

And his scrapbooks — filled with some 7,500 obits — found their way to The History Project, a volunteer organization that preserves the history of Boston’s LGBTQ community. There, they’ve stunned younger activists too young to recall the desolation that once seemed unstoppable.

“I didn’t experience that devastating loss,” said Andrew Elder, who co-leads the project, and was born in 1980. “These books give you a sense of the magnitude of what was going on.”

Over the past 18 months, volunteers have gone through Quinn’s scrapbooks, page by page, digitizing the clippings and preserving the originals. All 26 volumes have just been made available online. They’re called Robert John Quinn’s Memorial Books.

But they’re missing an important entry, marking one more life that should never be forgotten.

Here it is.

Globe librarian Jeremiah Manion contributed to this story. Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham
@globe.com
. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.