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06/01/2014 10:22 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Pioneers In Illinois Gay Marriage Lawsuit Ready For Wedding Bells After 50 Years Of Waiting

StarBelly Studios

Come Monday, everything changes for Chicago same-sex couple Jim Darby and Patrick Bova -- in one respect.

Darby and Bova, the lead plaintiffs in Lambda Legal's successful Illinois marriage equality lawsuit, will be among 15 couples marrying at the Museum of Contemporary Art the day after the state's hard-won same-sex marriage law takes effect.

In other respects, Darby, 81, and Bova, 76, are already married. In 1995, they "wed" in an impromptu ceremony at the grave of Sgt. Leonard Matlovich, the first gay servicemember to out himself, in Washington's Congressional Cemetery. As of July, the couple will have been together for 51 years.

Once they complete their vows, Darby and Bova will officially be husband and husband in the eyes of the law, giving them new rights, obligations and protections beyond the civil union they entered in 2011.

Darby, a veteran of the Korean War, said he didn't expect he would live to see his wedding day.

"I did not think this would ever come," Darby told The Huffington Post. "I was involved with the gay veterans for 20 years and it seemed like Don't Ask Don't Tell would never come to an end. And when it did, it came so fast we were almost caught by surprise."

Darby and Bova first laid eyes on each other on July 17, 1963. Darby had ridden his motorcycle from his home at Grand and Halsted to Hyde Park to visit a friend.

60s"I was walking to the beach and I saw this tall handsome guy walking down the street reading a book," he said. "While he was walking. And I whistled at him! My friend panicked and said, 'We don't whistle at guys on the South Side!' But I didn't give a shit."

Bova, a University of Chicago student at the time, had been out "sort of cruising" to meet someone. He never heard the whistling and kept walking. But about 10:30 at night, Darby saw him again, peering into a bookstore window. Darby walked up and asked, "Do you have a light?"

"I thought to myself that is a corny line!" Bova remembered. "On the other hand, that was a fail-safe line in those days because most people smoked."

"And that was it," Darby said. By that September, Darby had landed a teaching job at a South Side high school and they were living together in Bova's apartment. They were "as for-keeps as possible, given our circumstances," Bova said.

"We didn't, of course, imagine getting married," Bova added. "I don't think anybody was talking about such things then."

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Bova and Darby in Montreal, Quebec in 1967.

Darby taught in Chicago public schools until 1992. Bova worked as a librarian with the National Opinion Research Center from 1963 until 1998.

Through the years, they've shared fond adventures. Hopping into the car and traveling to Mexico and California without a set route were some of Bova's favorites.

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In Tijuana in 1984.

"We'd just look at the atlas and rely on some serendipity. We were together in the car all those times and I really appreciate it as a precious memory," Bova said.

The two also have been dedicated activists, especially on issues concerning gay veterans. In 1993, Darby was arrested at a White House protest against the military's Don't Ask Don't Tell policy.

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Darby is arrested at the White House in 1993.

"The plan was to sit down and not move," Darby said. "The policeman said, 'You're going to get up or I will pick you up.' I said, 'Honey, you can pick me up anytime you want!'" He put on white gloves -- in those days, any interaction police had with gay people they would wear gloves -- and two of them picked me up, carried me away and I was thrown in the paddy wagon."

darby militaryIt wasn't Darby's first arrest. In 1952, when he was home on leave from Korea, Darby and a friend went to Sam's, a gay bar at Clark and Division. Soon after they arrived, the lights went up and the cops rushed in. Darby, then 21, was charged with disturbing the peace and was jailed for the night.

The next day, he was back at Sam's for another drink with his friend.

Darby said he has no plans to get arrested again. "Patrick said he won't bail me out anymore," he joked.

In recent years, Darby and Bova have traveled to the Illinois state capitol in Springfield multiple times to lobby for marriage equality legislation. They focused their conversations on state lawmakers who were military veterans. One voted in favor of equality after previously saying she was undecided. The couple also spoke at press conferences.

When the marriage bill was signed into law by Gov. Pat Quinn in November, a photo of Darby and Bova kissing was splashed onto front pages across the country. That night, they wore the "crumpled" corduroy jackets Darby said have become something of an accidental trademark for them in many of their public appearances.

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Darby and Bova share a kiss on the stage at the Chicago bill-signing of the marriage legislation.

Marriage comes with another huge benefit for Darby and Bova, who share a home in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood. When they die, they'll be allowed to be buried next to each other in the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery, according to their wishes. The privilege is only granted to legally married couples.

Ahead of their big day, the two husbands-to-be were asked to describe the other in one word. Neither could.

"What I often say is that when Jim enters the room, it doesn't matter if it's with a group of people or even in the morning when he comes down for coffee, he brightens the room," Bova said. "He lightens it and brightens it and brings the atmosphere alive. Everybody feels that way. If I get together with friends and Jim's not there, it's not quite the same. He's a catalyst for happiness."

"I can't imagine life without Patrick," Darby said. "When I'm away for X number of hours, I begin to wonder what he's doing now and how he is. And that's only hours. … I got the best thing on the block."

As for relationship advice for a younger generation? Bova offered a simple suggestion:

"Take the long view. Especially now, for the same-sex couples, that long view is much more promising and inviting with marriage, whatever your ideas about that are. You don't have to get married, but you now can, and that puts a whole different light on how you interact. You want to not think of this as two weeks or two months, but as years down the line."

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Darby and Bova today.

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