A life of devotion to the pursuit of labor history came to an abrupt end on Sept. 15 with the death of William J Adelman, a founder of the Illinois Labor History Society and its vice president.
The cause of death was a heart attack.
Adelman began his professional career as a high school history teacher. Later Professor Adelman joined the faculty of the Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations at the University of Illinois-Chicago.
He was one of the few academics offering a labor history perspective in the Chicago region during the 60s and 70s. His lectures, seminars and tours to labor sites became extremely popular, particularly in the labor union community. His content was always designed to produce the maximum understanding of the historical roots of contemporary issues, and his encyclopedic knowledge of the subject was legendary.
As one of an informal group of labor attorneys, educators and editors he helped create the Haymarket Workers Memorial Committee which issued a call for a ceremony in Haymarket Square on May 1, 1969, to correct public misunderstanding of the “so-called” Haymarket riot. The success of that effort led to the incorporation of the Illinois Labor History Society and Adelman’s election as vice president that same year.
Aware of the need for better teaching tools, Adelman produced self-guided tours to the Pullman community where the great strike of 1894 had taken place and to areas associated with the Haymarket Tragedy of 1886.
He continued the series with Pilsen and the West Side, including the Ashland Avenue neighborhood known as Union Row, because of its numerous labor union headquarters.
His visual works began in the 16mm days with “Packingtown USA” followed by “Palace Cars and Paradise,” a walking tour of the Pullman community with Adelman himself as guide. Both have been transferred to video. Most of these materials are available today through the Illinois Labor History Society.
He served on the official public committee to select the sculptor for the Haymarket Memorial sculpture installed by the City of Chicago in Haymarket Square in 2004, after 35 years of agitation by the labor community. This historic event followed the naming of the Haymarket Martyrs Monument in Forest Home Cemetery as a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. National Park Service in 1998. Adelman had urged such action at a conference held by the Park Service.
In May 2009, Adelman’s “Haymarket Revisited” was republished in the English language by the Centre of Indian Trade Unions in New Delhi with a foreword by its president, M.K. Pandhe. In this new version entitled “Glorious Saga of May Day Martyrs,” Pandhe notes that he and his wife had been members of a Haymarket tour party in 2008. Pandhe declares: “…I must mention the remarkable guidance given by Prof. William J. Adelman. For over two hours he narrated the entire background to us in a lucid manner which reflected his firm commitment to the working class and their legitimate struggles… I was deeply impressed by the book and thought that Indian readers should know about the glorious struggle of the Chicago workers.”
Adelman was immediately informed when the book arrived at the ILHS office in late August of this year, but unfortunately he did not have the opportunity to see it before his untimely death.
Adelman was 77 and had lived in Oak Park. He was the beloved life partner of David Staley and spouse of Nora Jill Adelman; loving father of Michelle, Marguerite (Robert Ackland), Michael, Marc (Trish) and Jessica Adelman; cherished grandfather of Jon, Ben, Jeffrey, Elinora and Gwendolen; dear brother of Sandra (John) Walsh; dear uncle of John (Melissa), Timothy (Michelle) and Karen (Robert).
William was a professor of Labor & Industrial Relations at the University of Illinois, Chicago and was a founding member/vice president of the Illinois History Labor Society.
“Bill Adelman was a friend, mentor and colleague. His death is a loss to me personally and to the many folks who have come to know that the true story of America is really the one written and unwritten by the workers who have created all wealth in this country,” said Larry Spivack, president of Illinois Labor History Society.
Memorial donations to Illinois Labor History Society or the Miller, Cook & Wood Theater Scholarship at OPRF High School are appreciated. Info: 708-383-3191.
Leslie Orear is president emeritus of Illinois Labor History Society.