Labor historian William J. Adelman has passed. His walking tours of labor sites in Chicago, his books, his union organizing, and vision inspired and educated many generations of activists and made sure that the labor struggles of the past are remembered and carried into the present. Below is tribute to his legacy.
“William J. Adelman, 1932-2009: Teacher formed a union at school, became labor history expert
By Joan Giangrasse Kates
Special to the Tribune
September 21, 2009
When it came to the labor movement in Illinois, William J. Adelman was not only a fierce advocate at the ground level but also a devoted historian and preserver of its legacy.
The longtime Oak Park resident got firsthand experience helping organize fellow teachers at Morton West High School in Berwyn during the 1960s.
“He’d teach all day and then conduct union meetings at night,” said his son Marc.
Mr. Adelman later became a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, during which time he penned a series of walking tour books on significant sites involving the labor movement in Chicago. In 1969 he also co-founded the Illinois Labor History Society in Chicago and was its vice president.
“We wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for Bill and his devotion to preserving our history,” said Larry Spivack, president of the society, the oldest organization of its kind in the United States. “He was for many years the public face of the labor movement in Illinois.”
Mr. Adelman, 77, who died in his Oak Park home Tuesday, Sept. 15, apparently of a heart attack, became such a renowned labor expert that he often was an adviser, writer and narrator of films and documentaries on the labor movement, particularly those dealing with Chicago’s history, family members said.
“They called him ‘the people’s scholar’ because of his passion for wanting to teach as many people as possible about the labor movement and its relevance today,” his son said.
Born and raised on Chicago’s West Side, Mr. Adelman was a graduate of Oak Park and River Forest High School in Oak Park. He received a bachelor’s degree in history from Elmhurst College in 1955 and received a master’s degree in American history from the University of Chicago in 1964.
In 1955, after graduating college, Mr. Adelman took a trip to Europe, where he met his wife, Nora. That same year, after returning to the States, the couple married. They had five children and lived for a time in Bensenville, before separating in the late 1970s.
Mr. Adelman taught at Jefferson Junior High School in Berwyn for three years in the late 1950s before joining the faculty at Morton West. There, he taught American history for six years and helped organize a teachers union, work that required meetings often held in his home in the evenings, family members said.
“He introduced us to his friends, fellow teachers, all of different races and backgrounds,” his son said. “He taught us a powerful lesson about people being just people, no matter their economic class or the color of their skin.”
From 1966 to 1991, Mr. Adelman taught labor and industrial relations at UIC and later became a professor emeritus at the university’s Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations.
The author of several labor history tour books, including “Touring Pullman,” “Haymarket Revisited” and “Pilsen and the West Side,” Mr. Adelman also helped write and research several films, including “Packingtown, USA,” released in 1969, about Chicago’s meat cutters and butchers union. He also was narrator of the 1983 documentary “Palace Cars and Paradise: The Pullman Model Town,” which dealt with the Pullman Strike of 1894 in Chicago.
In addition to his son and ex-wife, Mr. Adelman also is survived by a life partner, David Staley; a son, Michael; three daughters, Michelle, Marguerite and Jessica; a sister, Sandra Walsh; and five grandchildren.
Services were held.”