November 17, 2009

Alderman's library a who's who of Hyde Park

When former Hyde Park alderman Leon Despres died last year, he left behind over 1,500 books that showcase his intellectual breadth. Books on French literature, Chicago history, civil rights, legal history, and union activism follow his interests through the years, evidence of a life dedicated to Hyde Park and the University of Chicago.

Hundreds of volumes were written by University alumni and professors, and many more are about the University itself, tracing Despres’ friendships and correspondences with intellectuals who were as much a product of the University as he was.

Now, flanked by posters from his political campaigns, Despres’ personal library is for sale at O’Gara and Wilson, Hyde Park’s antique bookstore.

Despres (Ph.B. ’27, J.D. ’29) was a Hyde Park institution, making the neighborhood “ground zero” for interest in his books, store owner Doug Wilson said.

Despres moved here when he was a toddler, attended the Lab Schools, and graduated from Ray Elementary School, the College, and the Law School.

He served as Hyde Park’s alderman from 1955 to 1975, known as the only alderman to resist Mayor Richard J. Daley at the height of his power — Despres’ microphone was often turned off during City Council meetings to allow a Daley ally to intervene. Despres also fought against the University’s support of restrictive covenants in Hyde Park and throughout the city.

His books feature a who’s who of University alumni and professors, many inscribed by the author. Sandwiched between University of Chicago Biographical Sketches and University of Chicago Song Book are legal treatises by former Law School professor and leader of the Kalven Committee Henry Kalven Jr. (A.B. ’35, J.D. ’38) and a study of European immigration by Enrico Fermi’s wife.

Even Despres’ detective novels have a U of C connection: he has a signed copy of a Sara Paretsky (A.M. ’69, M.B.A. ’77, Ph.D. ’77) thriller following a University alum-cum-sleuth.

When Despres died last year in Hyde Park at 101, Wilson said buying Despres’ books didn’t cross his mind.

“It’s not our policy to chase hearses,” Wilson said.

But months later, two “older gentlemen” walked through the shop, more interested in Wilson than his books. “I felt like I was being checked out,” Wilson said.

The men, Despres’ son Robert and journalist Kenan Heise, co-author of Despres’ autobiography, were looking for a good home for Despres’ books, Wilson said.

Robert, who sorted and donated his father’s papers, was left with his father’s personal library. Impressed with the “antiquarian” bookshop, they pushed Wilson to bid for the collection.

Wilson walked over to Despres’ house a few blocks away to inspect the books. The apartment was filled with them: bookcases littered the living room, glass cases lined the hallways, and floor-to-ceiling shelves covered Despres’ study.

“When you look at a person’s books, you can divine the course of their life,” said Wilson, who found notes scribbled inside many of the books. “Books were clearly a big part of his life. He lived through the World Wars, the Depression, and he held on to every book he ever had. That’s unusual.”

So far, Wilson’s sold about 200 of the books, mostly to people who knew—or wanted to know—Despres. “They want a piece of the person. They know their hero touched and handled, and maybe even read or thought about the books,” Wilson said. “When you deal with a notable individual who voices his opinions in the margins of his books, you want to hear what he had to say.”

One of the first buyers was a young clerk from Despres’ downtown firm who came to the store looking for a memento, and bought a paperback of Nelson Algren’s A Walk on the Wild Side for $125. “The legend was still very alive,” Wilson said. “That price was quite a leap for a young fellow.”

Despres was close friends with Chicago journalist and oral historian Studs Terkel (Ph.B. ’32, J.D. ’34) for over 70 years. Terkel gave Despres copies of almost all his books, each with page-long inscriptions.

“Studs Terkel was quick with the pen,” Wilson said, adding that autographed copies of Terkel’s works with canned phrases are common even after his death. “But to Leon Despres, filling a whole page with a personal inscription makes them into unique copies.”

Terkel’s inscriptions praise his “mentor.”

“To Leon: Who has been my north star, who has shown me to a world of peace, grace, and beauty,” Terkel wrote. “You are the best example for all of us to what a true public servant is.”

Despres’ books range from $20 to well over $2000. The most expensive is Despres’ copy of Rules for Radicals by Saul Alinsky (Ph.B. ’30), known for his skill in organizing lower-class blacks against injustices. Rules, Alinsky’s how-to guide, became one of the seminal works on community organizing. Despres’ favorable review of the book for the Chicago Sun-Times is folded inside the copy.

“It has such a historical significance right now,” said Wilson, who has a photo of Barack Obama teaching Rules next to the book in his front window. “And with the connection to Despres and his support of political movements, it’s the very best copy you could ever imagine possessing.”