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Harvey Karlen And The History Of The U.S.P.S. In Chicago

February 27, 2008

I’m not a regular reader of the obituaries. Of course one cannot miss the prominent deaths featured on the front pages of newspapers, but I usually only scan the obituary section. A few weeks back, however, a notice on one man’s death caught my eye: Harvey Karlen, Ph.D. He lived from 1918 to 2008. Somewhere in those almost 90 years he decided to make a hobby of exploring the history of the postal service, particularly in Chicago. The “somewhere” in that timeline corresponded, according to his obit, with an interest in stamp collecting.

Confession: As a kid I was interested in stamps for about 2-3 years. Yes, I was a nerd. Sigh. I think my interest began, sometime in the 1980s, after sighting a series of colorful stamps about space shuttles. From there my exploration went historical, and I began to understand the business and hobby of collecting. My modest collection eventually came to include not just old, cancelled stamps, but slickly produced, laminated folders of new, uncancelled stamps. The U.S. Postal Service created the folders for hobbyist collectors like me. I remember accumulating 5-10 of those productions. But then, sometime around my first year of high school, that hobby ended. It was fun, and then it wasn’t. So it goes.

But I think my flirtation with collecting made me take note of Dr. Harvey Karlen’s hobby-turned-independent-historian transformation. Here are some highlights from his obituary with interspersed commentary:

– “Harvey Karlen started collecting stamps as a boy in suburban Berkeley and in retirement turned his full attention to philately, writing several scrupulously researched books on Chicago postal history.”
– “Dr. Karlen, 89, of Oak Park, a longtime teacher at Wright Junior College, died of natural causes Saturday, Feb. 9, in Rush Oak Park Hospital, said his wife, June.”

TL: I taught at Wright, off and on, from 2002 to 2006, but I don’t recall meeting Dr. Karlen.

– “Dr. Karlen’s philatelic interests extended well beyond stamps. He also collected and studied postmarks, the growth of branch post offices in the city and suburbs, the content of letters and the evolution of mail delivery systems.”

TL: This points to a character trait of historians: they have trouble ending their explorations.

– “He liked nothing better than a long afternoon burrowed into research in the library of the Collectors Club of Chicago, one of the city’s top philatelic organizations. His research led to numerous articles and books, some published by the club.”

TL: I’d never heard of the Collectors Club of Chicago before seeing this and searching for the link.

– “Among his books were Chicago’s Mail: An Anthology of Postal History Articles Focusing Upon the Community’s Growth, Its Interests and Its Attitudes and the playfully titled Chicago’s Crabgrass Communities: A History of the Independent Suburbs and Their Post Offices That Became Part of Chicago. ‘No one else had ever tackled this subject in detail,’ Collector’s Club member Al Kugel said.”

TL: Chicago’s Mail has an Amazon entry, but with no picture nor copies for sale. Chicago’s Crabgrass Communities also has an Amazon entry with no picture, but there is a copy available for $119.99.

– “[Karlen] was a frequent speaker at the Collector’s Club’s monthly meetings, known for his love of wordplay. ‘He not only collected stamps, he educated people about them, studied them and tried to show people what was interesting about them,’ Kugel said.”
– “As a boy in the western suburbs, Dr. Karlen roller skated to the local post office to pick up the newest stamp issues, his wife said. He graduated from Proviso East High School and went on to get a doctoral degree in political science at the University of Chicago in 1950. He taught at City College of New York for four years before a long tenure at Wright Junior College in Chicago. Mr. Karlen retired from teaching in the 1980s.”

TL: Well, the retirement explains why I never saw him at Wright. I wonder how Dr. Karlen linked his political science background with stamp collecting? It seems unlikely to me that his education didn’t affect his writing about stamps and the postal service.

– “He could only shake his head at Chicago’s well-known postal woes of recent years: The U.S. postmaster called the city’s postal service the worst in the nation in early 2007. ‘That’s not the way it was back in the old days,’ Kugel said. ‘We had very good mail service.’ “

TL: All too true, I’m afraid. Occasionally a story will pop up here in Chicago about a postal worker who’s hoarded letters for two or three years, or about a letter finally delivered after being sent ten years ago. I confess these are vaguely familiar anecdotes, however, as I’m not backing them up with research.


Despite the down-note ending, it’s great to live in a city where individuals like Dr. Karlen ply their hobbies. And it’s especially nice that someone with his education applied it well even as an overworked faculty member of the City Colleges of Chicago, where full-time instructors routinely have 5/5 plus summer loads. Of course they’re paid well, but they have little time for research or intense hobbies. Maybe it was different during Dr. Karlen’s tenure?

In researching Dr. Karlen’s life, I learned that he participated in an age discrimination suit against the City Colleges. The well-known Judge Richard Posner presided over the suit (Posner blogs here). Here is Posner’s opinion on the decision. It appears to me that Karlen and his co-appellants won their case. I wonder why this was left out of his obituary? It seems a nice footnote to the city’s labor history. – TL


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