“Her life was everything she ever felt,” Kenan Heise wrote in a poem he published ten years ago, four years before his retirement as chief obituary writer at the Tribune. “Her Obituary” is a dirt-simple thing, succinct like a buried news item but full of the liberal personalism the journalist, poet, and historian brought with him to Chicago from a Franciscan seminary in his native Michigan more than 40 years ago.
“Something happened, / and she took that with her too,” the poem concludes. There goes a story Heise doesn’t get to tell.
“I know dates but I want to hear voices,” he says of his career, which included 34 years with the Tribune Company and over two dozen fiction and nonfiction books about his adopted hometown. His first two, They Speak for Themselves, which came out in 1965, and The Death of Christmas, published six years later, were populist oral histories in the style of Studs Terkel.
“We both listened directly to people whose voices aren’t heard,” says Heise. “It’s not true that a senator is more important than a voter, or more interesting. It’s just not true. Nuns are as important as priests, nurses as important as doctors. If someone taught math, I want to know, how did she teach math?”
Over the years his hunger for ordinary narratives has led him to collect books–lots and lots of books that until recently filled his spacious Evanston home. In the living room are shelves devoted to works on Clarence Darrow, Jane Addams, and African-American life in the Windy City. His basement reveals even more rare books and first editions sprawled along rough shelves and stacked in old wooden ammo crates. In all he’s amassed about 3,000 volumes, which he’s now decided to sell through Leslie Hindman’s auction house. On the block next weekend will be a first-edition signed copy of Nelson Algren’s Chicago: City on the Make, a rare 1886 edition of John Peter Altgeld’s Our Penal Machinery and Its Victims, and 72 lots of work on or by Carl Sandburg. He’s also got the first five years of Gay Chicago, a pamphlet-size publication started in 1978, and copies of the Seed, Chicago’s first alternative newspaper, from the late 60s. “You search these things out,” he says. “You hear what they have to say.”
Heise moonlighted as the proprietor of Chicago Historical Bookworks in Evanston from 1985 until he closed the store in 2002. He was suffering from temporal arteritis, an inflammation of the artery in his left temple. Then, in October 2003, he was diagnosed with renal cell cancer. The obit writer had to face being the story.
“There’s a point in your life where you quit collecting, start divesting,” he says. “That’s terrible if you keep everything–whatever: seashells, records. It’s a disservice to your family. You have to think of how to help [them] deal with your books. I don’t want someone else to have this job. It’s not that big of a thing,” he says with a toss of his hand. “It’s what happens when you reach your 70s.”
He had a kidney removed in March and reports that he’s now free of the cancer. He’s also back on prednisone, the anti-inflammatory steroid he was using to treat his arteritis but had to stop prior to his surgery.
“There’s a reason they don’t give [steroids] to athletes, but they’ll give them to booksellers,” he says, laughing. “You have the energy to play three football games. I was up three times a night cataloging this overwhelming monument to Chicago books.”
The Kenan Heise Collection of Books and Manuscripts is on exhibit Thursday, April 29, from 10 AM to 6 PM and Friday, April 30, from 10 to 3 at Leslie Hindman, 122 N. Aberdeen. The auction gets under way Saturday, May 1, at 10 AM. Call 312-280-1212 or see www.lesliehindman.com.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Stephen J. Serio.