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LeRoy Tolman, who had the world in his hands as globe-maker's chief cartographer, dead at 84

LeRoy M. Tolman taking a closeup view of one of his globes in 1997 at Replogle Globes in Broadview, for which he was chief cartographer . Sun-Times file photo

LeRoy M. Tolman had the world in his hands.

As chief cartographer for Replogle Globes, Mr. Tolman’s job involved tracking political unrest, the winds of democracy and the fall of colonialism — and using what he learned to update the company’s globes.

During his 44 years with the world’s leading globe-maker, Burma became Myanmar, Peking shifted to Beijing, the French Sudan transformed into Mali, Zanzibar turned into Tanzania, and Portuguese East Africa became a country that any good cartographer knows makes use of every vowel: Mozambique.

Many Replogle globes carry LeRoy M. Tolman’s name. Working at the manufacturer’s headquarters — first in Chicago, then in Broadview — he helped pick the blues of oceans and the color of countries.

The breakup of the Soviet Union and African pushes for independence were among the political developments that kept him busy, said his wife, Vernadene. She recalled his reaction when she alerted him to a geopolitical change, telling him, “ ‘I just heard on the radio that two nations in Africa just combined.’ And he said, ‘Oh, s—.’

“He immediately erased the boundary — just before it [the globes] went out.”

Mr. Tolman, 84, died Sept. 12 at Westlake Hospital in Melrose Park after a lifetime of helping to stoke the imaginations of countless armchair travelers who moved their hands over his globes’ oceans and land masses as if circumnavigating the earth.

Though he followed the guidance of the U.S. State Department and foreign governments, Mr. Tolman also carried his own cartographic clout.

“The boundaries are established by the State Department, but everything else, like the selection of cities,” can be decided by a mapmaker, said Clayton Chang, Replogle’s president.

So Mr. Tolman could select “which city, which river, which landmark” would be included on the globe, Chang said. Cartographers “could draw a line — ‘There was a famous battle here.’ He could include the name of a smaller river.”

“If there was a change we had to work on the Soviet Union, anything, we had to go through him,” said Kevin Dzurny, of Replogle’s cartography department.

Mr. Tolman had to be a diplomat and prognosticator. He once ordered up globes that deleted a major Soviet republic that he suspected was about to break away — and was relieved when his hunch proved right. In the 1980s, he told The Wall Street Journal that Replogle was willing to customize globes — say, when a big order came in from India for globes showing disputed regions of Kashmir as Indian-held.

“The customer’s not always right,” he said, “but he’s always the customer….We’ll have to make damn sure we don’t send any of those globes to Pakistan.”

LeRoy M. Tolman, seen here in 1987 checking a box of globes. Sun-Times file photo

In 1975, he admitted in an interview with the Northwest World that out of more than 20,000 names on one world map, he’d misspelled one — and that no one caught the mistake.

Young LeRoy grew up in the 4400 block of West Montana, a third-generation Chicagoan in a Norwegian-American family. Numerous relatives lived under one roof to help each other get through the Great Depression, according to his wife. He lived in that same home almost all his life, moving to a town home in Indian Head Park when Replogle relocated in the late 1980s from its Narragansett Avenue base to Broadview. It later moved to Indianapolis, but company officials said Wednesday that plans are afoot to return to Illinois and open in Hillside.

“He was always plotting out things and making maps of things, ever since he was a little boy,” his wife said.

After high school and some college, Mr. Tolman interviewed with Chicago mapmaker Rand McNally but decided to join Replogle instead because he wanted to work under the renowned German cartographer Gustav Brueckmann. Even after he took over cartography after Brueckmann’s retirement, his wife said, “He wouldn’t take the man’s name off the globes for several years, he said out of respect.”

Mr. Tolman retired from Replogle in 1998.

He stood only about 5 feet tall.

He enjoyed cruises. Being Norwegian, he often chose the Royal Viking line, his wife said. After meeting on a trans-Atlantic voyage, the couple continued to cruise and court on and off for a decade before marrying in their 60s.

“She’s a package deal, she comes with a bird and two trees,” he liked to say.

She had two bonsai and Wally, a double yellow-headed Amazon parrot that used to greet her with “Hi, Mom.” It took Mr. Tolman three years of trying, including many games of hide-and-seek, but finally he won Wally over. The parrot lived to be 39.

Mr. Tolman is also survived by a stepson, Chris Gondry. Another stepson, Michael Westerfield, died before him. A memorial service is planned for 11 a.m. Saturday at Evangelical Covenant Church of Hinsdale.