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Russell Lewis dies; Chicago transplant who became expert on the city’s history

Russell L. Lewis Jr. rose to be chief historian and executive vice president of the Chicago History Museum. He could tell you why State Street became that great street and that World's Fair fan dancer Sally Rand was no "dumb blond." | Chicago History Museum

The American, Illinois and Chicago flags were being flown at half-staff Monday at the Chicago History Museum for Russell L. Lewis Jr., who in a 36-year career rose to be its chief historian and executive vice president.

Mr. Lewis, who recently retired, died Friday at Rush University Medical Center of pancreatic cancer, according to his wife Mary Jane Jacob. He was 67 and lived in Lakeview.

Though he was a transplanted Chicagoan, “Chicago became his specialty and his love,” his wife said.

Mr. Lewis was an expert on President Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War, the Great Chicago Fire and Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, the Haitian immigrant considered the city’s first non-indigenous permanent resident.

Russell L. Lewis Jr. oversaw expansions during his 36 years at the Chicago History Museum. From 2005 until his retirement this year, he was chief historian and executive vice president. | Chicago History Museum
Russell L. Lewis Jr. oversaw expansions during his 36 years at the Chicago History Museum. From 2005 until his retirement this year, he was chief historian and executive vice president. | Chicago History Museum

He could hold forth on anything from the death of Lincoln to fan dancer Sally Rand, who scandalized and tantalized the multitudes at the 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair. Based on some of her business records, which are at the museum, Mr. Lewis once told the Chicago Sun-Times she was “miscast as a dumb blond.”

Mr. Lewis also could speak knowledgeably about the earliest days of Chicago department stores, and he could tell you how city officials decided to make State Street a retail hub because Lake Street had become filled with slop from the Chicago River.

And he understood that museum artifacts can evoke both everyday existence and a kind of time travel. When Lincoln died, his 6-feet-4-inch frame was too big for the deathbed. To accommodate him, “They tried to pull the footboard off it,” he told the Sun-Times in 2005. For many, the bed “has an almost holy quality,” he said.

As the museum prepared to exhibit a rare handwritten copy of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, Mr. Lewis said, “When it came to putting pen on paper, there’s yet to be [a president] who could match him.”

Russell Lewis was chief historian for the Chicago History Museum. | Facebook
Russell Lewis was chief historian for the Chicago History Museum. | Facebook

“He did a lot of high-level research on the ethics of DNA sampling around historical artifacts,” his wife said.

For instance, any bid to test potential blood samples linked to the Lincolns — and the quest to advance historical knowledge — had to be weighed against the possible degradation of those objects, she said.

Mr. Lewis — who at one point served as acting president of the museum, after Lonnie Bunch left to head the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture — was responsible for 22 million documents and artifacts.

“Russell Lewis was the glue that held the Chicago History Museum together,” said Gary T. Johnson, its president. “In 36 years, he worked in nearly every area of the museum and helped shape our public identity. His particular love was to share the stories of Chicago’s many, diverse communities.”

In a speech last month honoring the historian, Johnson told a story about the Ravinia Festival, in preparation for a tribute to Abe Lincoln, turning to the museum for information on any musical ties the president might have had.

“Russell said, ‘Well, we have Lincoln’s piano,’ ” said Johnson, who plans to pay tribute to Mr. Lewis during a Fourth of July program at the museum. “I was stunned. So I asked, ‘Why didn’t I know that we had Lincoln’s piano?’ Russell said, ‘Well, Gary, you never asked.’ ”

Mr. Lewis and his twin brother Joseph were born in Tucson, Arizona. They moved around a lot while growing up, based on the Army postings of their father, Col. Russell L. Lewis. Their mother Hazel Lewis was a member of the Women’s Army Corps.

Mr. Lewis went to high school in Omaha, Nebraska, then attended the University of Florida in Gainesville, where he met his future wife. They were married in 1973.

After doing archaeological digs in St. Augustine, Florida, he got his degree in anthropology, then a master’s degree in American culture from the University of Michigan.

Mr. Lewis served on many boards and was an adviser to The HistoryMakers, the archive of African American oral history.

He also played drums in a band with other museum staffers called Rusty and the Artifacts. When some of the Artifacts retired, he formed the Frozen Ground Blues Band.

Russell L. Lewis Jr. played with museum colleagues in the band Rusty and the Artifacts. He also played drums for the Frozen Ground Blues Band. | Chicago History Museum
Russell L. Lewis Jr. played with museum colleagues in the band Rusty and the Artifacts. He also played drums for the Frozen Ground Blues Band. | Chicago History Museum

In addition to his wife and brother, he is survived by his son Clayton and sister Susan.

“I just loved working with him,” said Jo Minow, a longtime museum board member. “He was so enthusiastic and so greatly enjoyed his work, it was contagious. He was the museum. He was it.”

VIDEO: Click to hear Russell Lewis Jr. talking about the Chicago History Museum’s L car No. 1