Franklin Roosevelt was president when Joe Herbert started selling cameras and lenses at Marquette Photo Supply.
For 73 years, Mr. Herbert aimed to do that and more. Kids dropped in to his store on 63rd Street to dream. He recognized their longing as their wide eyes took in all of the Leicas, Nikons, Hasselblads, Sonys and Canons. He’d take out the cameras and show them how they worked. If they wanted a lens but couldn’t afford it, he might just give it to them with a quiet, “Pay me next time.”
Older customers came in with bagels and coffeecakes to sit for awhile. They’d settle into comfy chairs pulled from the barbershop his brother Pete used to operate next door. They might confide about a kid who was having trouble in school or news that a doctor wanted their wife to come in for more tests.
“We called him ‘the priest,’ ” said his niece Carolyn Ilginis. “They had coffee, and they’d talk. He said they had to get everything out of their system, and, ‘I’m just listening to them.’ He was a very good listener.
“He was your neighborhood uncle,” she said. “A lotta them called him ‘Uncle Joe.’ ”
“It was like an old-fashioned small town,” said Kathy Gordon Davis, 54, who remembers visiting the store as a little girl when it stocked radios, stereos and tape recorders. “When I went in, he would ask me how my dad was doing.”
Mr. Herbert, 93, who never minded people who were just looking, died Sunday at Mother Theresa Home in Lemont, according to his niece.
He was the first child born in America to Hungarian immigrants Peter and Elizabeth Herbert. They were from the village of Vemend. They identified as “Danube Swabians” — Germans who’d floated down the Danube River to settle elsewhere. German and Hungarian were spoken at home. His father was a barber.
Young Joe went to St. Nicholas of Tolentine grade school. The work ethic that helped him put in long hours at his business was evident as a boy. He sold eggs door to door, caddied at Golfmoor Country Club on 79th Street, and worked as a pin-setter for Marzano’s bowling alley on 63rd Street. He said he even “babysat for a circus motorcycle family” — circus entertainers who balanced on motorcycles.
After graduating from Lindblom High School, his punctured eardrum prevented him from serving in the military, said his niece Mary Ann Scott. So he worked at aircraft engine manufacturers that supplied the war effort — a Studebaker plant at Archer and Cicero and a Dodge plant on land that eventually became part of Ford City Mall.
“He was always good with his hands,” Scott said. “He could fix anything.”
In November 1944, he opened Marquette Photo Supply, eventually moving it a couple of doors down to 3314 W. 63rd St. He sold and repaired photo equipment and processed film. His father and brother — also named Peter — operated the barbershop next door. The young men and their parents lived in an apartment behind the store.
For decades, he supplied equipment to photography students at many high schools, including Mother McAuley, where Davis chairs the visual arts and technology department.
“If he had customers who had old photo equipment or an enlarger or slide projector, things they don’t use anymore, he’d donate it to us,” she said. “He’d give things to us at a discounted price.”
“He’d stay there late if we needed something, if we were running to a wedding,” said Anthony Lullo, an owner of Artlynn Photography in Evergreen Park and Lansing. “Just a fantastic person, old-time, old-school business owner.”
Mr. Herbert continued working into his 90s, not stopping until late May. His family plans to continue to operate Marquette Photo Supply with limited hours, but only for the short term.
“It’s the end of an era,” Ilginis said.
Mr. Herbert was fond of his two consecutive German shepherds, both named Tanya.
At 70, he married Barbara Davis, a widow who had operated a Chicago Lawn dry cleaners with her late husband. “He loved Barbara, and he didn’t want to be alone any more,” said Ilginis.
In addition to his wife and nieces, Mr. Herbert is survived by his nephew Peter, Barbara’s children Babette Meiners and Owen Davis, and many nieces, nephews, great-nieces and great-nephews.
Visitation is planned for 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. Friday at Blake-Lamb Funeral Home in Oak Lawn. A funeral Mass will be said at 11 a.m. Saturday at St. Rita of Cascia Shrine Chapel, 7740 S. Western, followed by burial at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery.
In his casket, his family plans to tuck some film and the jeweler’s loupe he used to examine the tiny working parts of cameras.