Ed Tracy never served in the military, but he knows about military preparedness. Two weeks before the opening of the Pritzker Military Library he commanded a construction crew and a staff of two as they readied the 5,000-square-foot Streeterville space for inspection. While workers vacuumed plaster dust and the receptionist–a former marine corporal–fielded a call from the mayor’s office, Tracy firmed up the opening weekend’s guest list and armed himself against incidental queries into the Pritzker family fortunes with a preprinted four-page Q and A with the library’s namesake. Army national guard colonel James N. Pritzker (ret.) will throw open the doors to his 9,000-volume book collection this weekend in the building that once housed the legendary Chez Paree supper club.

Tracy, the library’s executive director, wanted everything to be shipshape a few weeks prior to the opening, but the atrium’s chandelier wasn’t due to arrive for a few days, and the collection’s catalog hadn’t yet gone online. “We’re still whammin’ and jammin’ it,” he said, but he was confident everything would be ready before the October 23 ribbon-cutting ceremony, scheduled to be attended by a full detail of eminent historians, biographers, and novelists.

Tracy used to be a rainmaker at Vermont’s Norwich University, the nation’s oldest private military college, where Pritzker–son of Robert, half-brother of Liesel, CEO of Tawani Enterprises and Tawani Foundations, and former army paratrooper–is a trustee. In 1996 he invited a klatch of noted writers on martial matters to the school for a two-day conference titled “Fact and Fiction in 20th Century Military History.” The symposium attracted media attention, partly because there’s not much to do in central Vermont, he says, and partly because of its cohost, William E. Colby, the controversial Vietnam-era CIA director, a onetime state resident and Norwich booster.

Ten days after the conference, Colby disappeared after going out alone for a nighttime canoe ride on the Wicomico River near his home in Maryland. His body was discovered more than a week later face down on the riverbank. Authorities ruled that he’d died of drowning and hypothermia, but his missing life jacket and other odd details inevitably bred conspiracy theories, among them the suspicion that his death was a hit in retaliation for revealing too many company secrets during his tenure.

The following year the symposium was renamed in Colby’s honor, and these days “the Colby circle” includes novelists Tom Clancy and Stephen Coonts, journalists Mark Bowden (Black Hawk Down) and Pulitzer winner Rick Atkinson (An Army at Dawn), scholars Bryan Mark Rigg (Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers), and retired spooks James Woolsey and Stansfield Turner.

Pritzker who’s been infatuated with the military since he was a lad, is a serious collector of books and military art. Last year he lured Tracy away from Norwich to head up his charitable Tawani Foundations and the library, whose stated mission is to collect materials “focusing on ‘the concept of the Citizen Soldier as an essential element for the preservation of democracy.'”

In practice that includes everything from an original Uncle Sam “I Want You” recruitment poster to a signed set of the collected works of Rudyard Kipling. Until a librarian was hired last February, Pritzker’s collection was mothballed and uncataloged. Jill Postma spent seven months weeding out the nonmilitaria and unearthing such treasures as Francis Miller’s ten-volume 1911 Photographic History of the Civil War and Sir Banastre Tarleton’s 1787 History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781 in the Southern Provinces of North America. Many titles are old enough to refer to World War I as “the war.” Tracy handles them with white cotton gloves and stores them in a massive steel safe alongside signed copies of Colin Powell’s My American Journey and Newt Gingrich’s novel Gettysburg.

Visitors can browse the stacks for titles like Napoleonic Uniforms (volumes one and two), The Scramble for Africa, and of course the collected works of the Colby circle. The collection’s strength is in the 19th and 20th century, but Tracy thinks it’s broad enough to attract researchers, students, tourists, or anyone who just wants to kill an afternoon flipping through Parameters: U.S. Army War College Quarterly.

Tracy brought the Colby Symposium to Chicago with him last year and plans to host several public readings or lectures every month at the library. Speakers lined up for November include Ed Ruggero, author of the new history Combat Jump, and Joseph Galloway, author (with Lieutenant General Harold Moore) of We Were Soldiers Once…and Young. Opening festivities October 23 and 24, which include the opening of the exhibit “Gettysburg: The Digital Battlefield” (up through January 2004) and the panel discussion “Facing the Future: Writing on War in the 21st Century,” are closed to the public but will be webcast live at www.pritzkermilitarylibrary.org. Saturday, October 25, the doors open to civilians from 10 AM to 3 PM. It’s free, but thereafter the library will be open by appointment only. It’s at 610 N. Fairbanks; call 312-587-7917.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Andre J. Jackson.