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Richard Seidel, renowned archivist, dies at age 75

Mr. Richard Seidel an archivist who worked with Newberry Library Chicago Public Schools.  Mr. Seidel collected papers social work

Mr. Richard Seidel, an archivist who worked with the Newberry Library and the Chicago Public Schools. Mr. Seidel collected the papers of social work pioneer Jane Addams, for Chicago's Episcopal Church, and on Richard Nickel, who photographed the buildings of Adler and Sullivan. | Provided Photo

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Updated: May 18, 2013 6:22AM

Richard Seidel would do almost anything to preserve Chicago’s history.

He choked back coughs as he sifted through attics filled with coal dust and bird droppings.

He spent years building relationships with potential donors of memorabilia, drinking tea and engaging in long, getting-to-know-you chats, winning them over with gentility and graciousness, and his assurance that their treasures would find a good home.

When historian Ellen Skerrett did research in the archives of the Chicago Public Schools, where Mr. Seidel worked, “it was not unusual for African-American bus drivers to stop in with yearbooks they had purchased at flea markets for the CPS collection. They understood that their history was also Chicago’s history, and Richard was indefatigable about getting that message out,” she said.

“He was saving the history of the Chicago Public Schools, school by school.”

Mr. Seidel, whose work as an archivist, acquisition librarian, and historiographer helped create world-class UIC collections on pioneering social worker Jane Addams of Hull House, died March 25 in Chicago of complications from a brain tumor. He was 75.

In addition to ferreting out information from census and genealogical records, “He helped find elusive people, kind of lost to history — men and women who participated with Jane Addams in the early days of getting Hull House started,” said Mary Lynn Bryan, editor of the Jane Addams Papers Project.

His work was invaluable to the 8½-pound book, “The Complete Architecture of Adler & Sullivan,” featuring the photos of Richard Nickel, said co-author Ward Miller, an architect and president of Preservation Chicago. Thanks to his organizational skills, “it meant that things were easily located,” Miller said. “He would break it down into facades of buildings; first-floor plans; second-floor plans.”

Mr. Seidel also collected early papers that told the story of Chicago’s Episcopal Church — often, through details about congregation members whose names are intertwined with Chicago, like Ryerson, Newberry and Ogden. And, for a time, he worked for the Newberry Library.

Instead of sitting behind a desk, he went out and sought historical documents, said Rima Lunin Schultz, a writer of “Women Building Chicago” and “The Church and the City” who built the Episcopal archives with Mr. Seidel.

When a Hyde Park home for retired Episcopalians faced closure in the 1980s, he and Schultz met — and dined — with the director. Just before the wrecking ball arrived, they were permitted to take its papers. “We found the most extraordinary collection of materials, from beginning to end, stored in an attic that was filled with bird droppings, and the residue of coal dust,” she said. “It was a story about the care of the elderly. . . . from the 1880s to the 1980s.”

The papers were significant, because “In Chicago before 1920 or 1930, all the charity [was] done by churches,” said Malachy McCarthy of the Claretian Missionaries Archives.

“Richard has been indefatigable in rescuing archival collections and significant artifacts from closed congregations and diocesan institutions,” Bishop Jeffrey Lee, leader of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago, said in a speech at a 2011 diocesan convention.

He had an eye for what people would find interesting, years ahead of time. In the 1960s, he spotted abolitionist pamphlets for sale while in London on a buying trip for UIC. He purchased them for very little money, Schultz said.

“Today, there is an exhibit on the 3rd floor of [UIC’s Daley] library that is the result of scholars working with those pamphlets,” Schultz said. “Having the exhibit, and being able to study and think about it, and have graduate students and scholars work on something like this, was the result of his acquisition and archiving work.”

Born in Toms River, N.J., Mr. Seidel received his library training at Rutgers University and earned a master’s at Seabury Western Theological Seminary.

He lived in a Briar Place apartment filled with books, and his two cats, Smokey and Tiger.

He never forgot the human touch. Mr. Seidel was known for writing touching thank-you notes to donors. Lucy Grieco received one after she brought him the journal of her mother, the former Esther Luciani, who took classes at Addams’ settlement house when she was a girl.

“He wrote me this beautiful letter,” Grieco said. “I still have it.”

Mr. Seidel is survived by a brother, Barry. Services were Friday.

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