Monday, May 23, 2011

New York Public Library Turns 100...and so does my father!

One of the greatest libraries in the world officially turns 100 today - May 23, 2011. Yup, on May 23, 1911, President William Howard Taft personally made the trip to Midtown Manhattan to dedicate the great lion-bedecked main building of the New York Library. As Clyde Haberman of the Times tells us, the original cost of the building in 1911 was a mere 9 Million dollars. How much is that in today's dollars? About 210 Million. Still a bargain, I'd say. First book checked out from this imposing structure? "Farm Management."

So are you imagining swarms of people descending on what is now called the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building (because Mr. Schwarzman donated 100 million of his own Wall Street-begotten money to offer the Library a helping hand)? Well, think again. The Building is not open to the general public today. Something tells me, though, that Mr. Schwarzman and his family and all their rich friends will be permitted to squeeze in a special visit.

As for my father, he is no longer alive, but we do celebrate his 100th birthday today. Yes, he, too, like the New York Public Library was brand new on May 23rd, 1911. Born in Chicago to two Lithuanian immigrants who at that time scraped out a living as harness makers, my father, Alfred Willis Preskill, was the first member of his family (he had a brother and sister at the time) to greet the world in a hospital. Apparently, when an automobile brought the new baby home a few days later, the entire neighborhood turned out for the historic homecoming.

Alfred went on to distinguish himself in school, while his father built up a very successful business as a hardware store proprietor. He skipped three grades and graduated from high school at the age of 15 before going on to the University of Chicago (by way of Crane Junior College because his family could not at first afford the tuition at the University of Chicago), graduating from UC with a law degree at the age of 21. Which meant, as it turned out, that he was destined to initiate the practice of law in 1932, just as the Great Depression reached its darkest and most dangerous phase.

He continued to practice law for many years, but never particularly liked it and when World War II ended and he and my mother (also a lawyer!) were looking for a place to live, they settled in the Chicago area where he landed a position in the mail room at an electronics start-up called Allied Radio, noted for, among other things, their ingenious do-it-yourself radio kits. While toiling in the mail room, he devised a clever new way to distribute the company's mail order catalogs more efficiently and quickly rose to the executive suite, eventually becoming Vice President of Operations and General Manager of this increasingly profitable company. See this link about the history of Allied Radio and its heyday in the 1950s and early 1960s:

When Alfred wasn't making a nice living for his wife and three sons (for a long time he even went to the office on Saturdays!), he was writing poetry, singing the popular songs he so cleverly penned during the 1930s and 1940s, and joyfully attending just about everything the Chicago Opera and Chicago Symphony had to offer.

He was a cool, funny, playful guy who savored puns and literature and history and could have been perfectly happy if he hadn't worked a day in his life. Almost certainly, his happiest days occurred during a long and largely healthy retirement when his long walks and daily crossword puzzles took up most of his time and when his many trips to the West Coast to be with his grandchildren gave him untold pleasure.

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