After college Tony Plakas knew what his fate would be – as a gay man he would get AIDS and die a slow, agonizing death.
“I was 16 in 1988. All I knew back then about AIDS was if you were gay you were going to have it,” he said. “I already expected to live a very short life, and I knew it was going to end with this horrible disease called AIDS.”
It’s a story that’s familiar with many coming of age gay teens in the 1980s. But that’s not what fate had in store for Plakas.
Today he’s the Chief Executive Officer of Compass, the LGBT community center of Palm Beach County. Plakas celebrates 20 years of employment at the non-profit this month.
And while Plakas, 44, did not die from HIV as he worried he would – his story cannot be told without talking about the disease.
In college, as the manager of the Wellness Center, it was Plakas’ job to talk about safe sex. Later Plakas got an internship with the Red Cross. As an intern there he brought the AIDS Memorial Quilt to his college campus. After college he went on to work for the Centers Disease Control and Prevention as a Reference Specialist for the CDC’s National AIDS Clearinghouse. And finally the job he landed at Compass in 1997 was as the HIV Prevention director.
"All I knew back then about AIDS was if you were gay you were going to have it,” he said. “I already expected to live a very short life, and I knew it was going to end with this horrible disease called AIDS.” — Tony Plakas
It was the AIDS quilt that changed the trajectory of his life though. After bringing it to his college and having it set up inside the gymnasium he volunteered to take the overnight shift to watch over the quilt.
“It wasn’t until I was all by myself that I actually started to walk around and look at the quilt,” he recalled. “And I had gotten myself so overwhelmed that I ended up calling my friends at 2 in the morning. I just couldn’t be there alone with those quilts.”
It was at that moment that he decided he wanted to work at the CDC to fight HIV. But that job did not turn out quite the way he expected.
“I experienced homophobia on a daily basis at the CDC,” he said. “People were still being demonized.”
After a year he’d had enough, and decided to pack up his bags and flee to Florida.
“I was programed to believe HIV was an eventuality,” he said. “I did not want to die in front of my parents, so I decided to move as far away from my family as I possibility could.”
He came up with two cities: Monterey, California and West Palm Beach. Both areas were recipients of STOP AIDS Project grants from the CDC. In the end Plakas didn’t know if he would fit in with the all rich kids in Monterey. So he chose the latter.
But with no place to live, no money in the bank and no job, he had no idea what he would end up doing. And he didn’t care. He just had to get away.
He applied for many jobs from West Palm Beach to Key West but as soon as he entered Compass he knew he had found his home.
“The moment that I opened those doors I knew that was where was I going to work,” he said.
HIV is an integral part of Compass’ own history. The center was originally founded in 1988 as the Stop AIDS Project. By 1992 SAP had become Compass. Today Compass is the largest LGBT community center in Florida and the Southeast United States in terms of budget, staff size and program diversity.
When Plakas started, the center had a budget of about $300,000. Today it’s $2.3 million.
THE EARLY YEARS
“I was a falling star,” Plakas said of himself when he arrived in Palm Beach County in 1997. He was a young man disillusioned with the real world.
But his life would change when he met Michael Brown, the owner of the neighborhood bar, H.G. Rooster’s in West Palm Beach.
“It was easier to run away from my entire family than to shame them by coming out. I ran as far away as I could to Palm Beach County. I was a college hot shot with too big of an ego to tell everyone I was gay,” Plakas said at a dedication service for Brown in 2009 after Brown was murdered by an on-again-off-again lover. “As fate would have it I landed next to Michael. I met him while I was still running…I was running…I was running…with my golden retriever by my side. He took us in like the two lost puppies that we were. And like people do with falling stars he made this wish for me and the wish was a lot better life than I had projected for myself.”
Soon after the two met Brown gave Plakas a job at Rooster’s as a bartender. The job not only supplemented his $22,500 salary, but also allowed him to quickly immerse himself in the LGBT community of Palm Beach County and serve as an HIV prevention educator.
Brown and Plakas would go on to be become best friends often traveling together where Plakas would help Brown set up the AIDS Memorial Quilt display around the country. At the time Brown served as the regional director of the Names Project, which oversaw the quilt.
“I miss him so bad that sometimes I have to forget him because I’ve never experienced a loss like that in my life. It was just so sudden,” Plakas said in 2009.
Today it’s evident the pain of that loss still stings.
“We were…very close,” Plakas said, taking a moment to compose himself. “He introduced me to everybody. Compass just would not be here without him.”
The center’s annual community award and Memorial Garden are both named after Brown.
Today the AIDS memorial quilt is also a mainstay at the center during World AIDS Day events. For Plakas that connection to the quilt goes back to his college years when he spearheaded the project to host it at his school. His connection to it deepened by knowing Brown.
Besides being a mentor and giving him a job, Brown would also introduce Plakas to his future husband, activist and attorney, Jamie Foreman, 45.
Photo: Tony Plakas (left) and his husband, Jamie Foreman.
Foreman still remembers the first time he laid eyes on Plakas. There was just something about the way he spoke about HIV prevention. He was persuasive. A trait that he still carries around today, Foreman said.
“I walked into Rooster’s and I saw this young man speak. He was so articulate about safety and prevention…in a nonjudgmental way. There was this young guy who wasn’t afraid to get on stage,” Foreman said. “I’ll never forget it.”
Talking about HIV at that time, Foreman said, was still not easy. He recalled that a prominent bar in Miami wouldn’t even allow educators to come in to discuss prevention because it was a “bummer” and would “take away the fun.”
“Tony was able to talk about it in a way where people wouldn’t run out of the door,” Foreman said.
That was the summer of 1997. They officially met in October and have been together ever since. They were legally married in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 2011.
Back then Foreman was a volunteer at Compass, stuffing condom and lube packs while eating wings and watching TV with other young gay men at the center.
“There wasn’t that much money back then,” Foreman said. “We had to rely on volunteers for everything.”
ON THE VERGE OF BANKRUPTCY
It hasn’t all been sunshine and rainbows for Compass with Plakas though. Twice in the last 20 years the center almost shut down. In 1999 and again in 2009.
In both cases Plakas served an integral role in keeping it open.
In 1999 the board was exhausted, and the executive director position had been empty for over a year. Looking for a new one proved challenging and Plakas was just too young and too green for the job. So the board considered turning over Compass’ assets to the United Way and shutting down.
Scott Badesch, the CEO of the local chapter at the time, gave the Compass board another suggestion.
Plakas recalled Badesch telling the board: “‘You’ve been operating for a year without an executive director, but he’s sitting right here providing you with monthly reports, balancing the checking account, doing your annual audit and overseeing your programs. If you’re tired of being on the board, do the most important thing board members can do and replace yourself with somebody who isn’t tired.”
Today Badesch is the CEO of the Autism Society in Maryland, and still counts Plakas as a friend.
“Tony is a great human being whose compassion and care for those he helps is very impressive,” Badesch said. “ His accomplishments are many but what is most important is that he leads by example and has earned the respect and trust of so many of us and others.”
When Compass outgrew their former location and decided to move to Lake Worth and take over the Mid-County Senior Center in downtown it was supposed to be smooth sailing.
It turned out to be anything but.
“We’re in a better place then we’ve been in years. And it’s because of his leadership skills and vision.” — Michael Grattendick
Despite a plethora of inspections the building had many problems that no one had foreseen. What was supposed to be a $600,000 renovation turned into a $1.7 million nightmare that almost bankrupted the community center.
“We were in dire straits,” Plakas said. “But there was a will for Compass to survive.”
But it wouldn’t be easy.
In 2009 they were in the hole about $800,000 with no sure way out. Money had to be raised and quick. Staff, including himself, skipped paychecks, some even emptied their retirement funds to keep the center afloat with no guarantees.
Plakas is proud to say that all of those funds have all been paid back.
“That’s a testament to his leadership. He was able to get it back on track,” said current chairman of the Compass board Michael Grattendick. “We’re in a better place then we’ve been in years. And it’s because of his leadership skills and vision.”
Plakas’ biggest strength, Grattendick said, is his ability to relate.
“He has the ability to tailor the message to any component of the community whether it’s the youth, volunteers, major contributors, individuals, organizations,” said Grattendick, who outside of Compass is the CFO of Aurora Diagnostics. “He has an ability to meet with any of the constituents, and tailor a message they respond to.”
Photo: Tony Plakas (right) and Julie Seaver at the International LGBT Leaders Conference in 2016. Photo via Facebook.
Julie Seaver, Center Operations Director of Compass, who started working with Compass in June of 2007 still vividly remembers those days of uncertainty.
“People just weren’t contributing to the causes. There were no new donors. Other organizations had to let their entire development and fundraising teams go,” she said.
The Compass board, she recalled, at the time considered doing the same thing. Plakas though, she said, refused. “He saved us. He stood up for us. Without development and outreach, there would be no Pride, no World AIDS Day, no Trans Day of Remembrance. We would just have been government cheese. But Tony turned that cheese into cheesecake. He said ‘I will work not work at Compass without a team with a heart.’”
Seaver added, “But Tony is really the heart.”
A NEW BUILDING AND A NEW HOPE
Several of the people SFGN interviewed mentioned the current building Compass is in as one of Plakas’ biggest accomplishments during his time as CEO. Even without the renovation problems they encountered it was still a huge undertaking.
Jamie Foreman noted, “The market crashed. Our contractor unexpectedly passed away. But we came together and had this vision. We took custody of this building with blood, sweat and tears. We continued to grow even under that financial climate. That’s his greatest achievement.”
Today Compass isn’t just an LGBT center – it’s a hub for the community.
“Ten years ago we looked like a Ryan White funded HIV service organization,” Julie Seaver said. “Today we are a hub for so many different groups and organizations that don’t have a home.”
Seaver quickly ticked off a list of groups that meet at the center like the League of Women Voters and the National Organization for Women.
“We’re a focal point for community organizing and that directly comes from Tony,” she said. “All of his experiences, his stories, running the wellness center in college, his experience as community a organizer, with programs and initiatives, that is really what we do today.”
"But we came together and had this vision. We took custody of this building with blood, sweat and tears. We continued to grow even under that financial climate. That’s his greatest achievement.” — Jamie Foreman
Seaver has plenty of great things to say about Plakas. She swears it’s not just because he’s the boss.
“Tony has a way of being able to find the right people on the bus, being able to see down the road,” she said.
Something else that stands out for Seaver, “whenever the staff screws up he takes the blame. That stuff isn’t posted on Facebook. Whenever we do something right, he never takes credit for any of those things, always gives the kudos to the staff, volunteers and board. People don’t get to see that side of Tony.”
To Seaver, Plakas is a superhero, in more ways than one.
“I have him in my phone as the Greek Lantern,” a nod to his affection for comic books and his Greek heritage. At Compass each staffer is required to choose a superhero they most identify with. Plakas is the Green Lantern. Seaver is the Black Canary. Foreman, who still volunteers for Compass, is The Flash.
“Many of the superheroes have a story, and a reason for doing the things they do,” Seaver said. “They’re broken. They rise above the ashes. Tony really believes that about every single one of us. The stories are different, but the mission is the same.”
THE WOMEN’S MOVEMENT
While HIV is the running theme throughout Plakas’ career and Compass’ history, women’s rights also plays an important part.
For Lillian Tamayo, the CEO of Planned Parenthood South Florida, one moment in her relationship with Plakas stands out above the rest.
It was 2004 and she was in Washington D.C. with Plakas for a Women’s March.
“Here were our colleagues in the LGBTQ movement, standing there shoulder to shoulder in coalition,” she recalled. “It was crystal clear proof of their willingness and heartfelt commitment. I just remember Tony’s commitment. Compass at the time was predominantly young men, they worked to create a space for lesbians. Tony weaved together these movements.”
Plakas’ own involvement with the Women’s Movement dates back to college when he managed the college Wellness Center on his college campus. For a while the women’s center was housed within his center and he fought for funding.
“I feel that the LGBTQ movement must always remember our roots are tied closely to the reproductive rights movement,” Plakas said. “The intersection relates directly to legislating what we do with our bodies, how we plan our families and what our families look like, same-sex or not.”
Tamayo became CEO about the same time as Plakas and they’ve worked together over the years being local LGBT leaders of progressive organizations collaborating when possible.
Compass has 10 years left on its current lease. But Plakas says they’ve already outgrown the 14,000 square foot space. The previous location was 5,000 square feet.
Meanwhile Compass’ mission and outreach continues to evolve.
The first 10 years of Plakas’ career at the center was focused on HIV. The second 10 years was focused on being an inclusive LGBT community center. His new vision for the future lies with children and seniors.
Plakas said the center will have to evolve once again, this time to address the growing number of LGBT parents as well LGBT folks who are getting older – providing services like daycare and aftercare for children, potentially even a charter school, and becoming a daytime resource for senior care.
“I have a lot of progressive friends who just want their children to grow up in a progressive environment,” Plakas said.
Already plans are being drawn up for a new building. Next year Compass celebrates 30 years and they’ll be kicking off a campaign to fund the project.
As for his own future at Compass he won’t say.
“I serve at the pleasure of a board of trustees,” he said. “…so I am not going to jinx myself on that one.”