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U of C’s Charles Barnwell dies; experimented with photography

Charles Barnwell worked at the University of Chicago and dabbled in photography, composing this hand-tinted self-portrait. | Supplied photo

Charles Barnwell generated the photocopies at the University of Chicago law school, where his curiosity and intelligence made him a polymath able to converse with any professor on subjects ranging from the Monroe Doctrine to the U.S. space program.

“I always wondered, how do you relate to those professors at the law school? But he was a pretty smart guy. He loved to read,” consuming three newspapers a day, and books on history and science fiction, said his son Steve.

“He was never intimidated by anybody on the job, those big professors,” said his daughter Gail.

On the side, Mr. Barnwell dabbled in photography. He collected cameras, started a photography club and built a home darkroom. “That was his man cave,” his son said.

Charles Barnwell | Family photo

He experimented with lighting and hand-tinting pictures, like the image he took of himself looking as snazzy as the famed musicians he followed in his 20s when they performed at the Regal theater and the Club DeLisa, known as “the Harlem of Chicago.”

“I don’t care where Billy Eckstine was, he’d go to see him,” said his sister Grace Cothran. He went to shows by some of the finest vocalists ever to sing jazz and pop, including Sarah Vaughan, Nat “King” Cole and Joe Williams. “We used to go clubbing and we’d be out at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning,” she said, “We would have breakfast, and then he would always go to mass at St. James at 29th and Wabash — it didn’t matter how late we were out.”

Mr. Barnwell, 87, died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and pneumonia April 18 at Kindred Chicago Lakeshore.

He was born in Chicago to Minnie and Albert Barnwell. She was from Georgia, and he was from South Carolina. His father, who worked as a line cook, used to say, “If you can’t make it in Chicago, you can’t make it anywhere.”

Young Charles grew up near 26th and Indiana during the Depression. He graduated from Drake elementary school and Wendell Phillips High School. “We didn’t know we were poor,” said Grace Cothran. “We didn’t have a lot, but nobody did at that particular time.”

Even when his clothes were threadbare, “He said he’d put on whatever he could wear and go to school,” said his son.

Mr. Barnwell and his wife Gertrude Creswell were married 52 years. She worked in a billing department at the University of Chicago. They lived for a time in the Ida B. Wells homes, saving money until they could buy a residence near 75th and Langley. “He wanted his kids to grow up in a house with a backyard,” said his son. “He was the perfect example of the American dream to me.”

Mr. Barnwell worked for about 15 years for the catalog giant Spiegel, which had a history of hiring African-Americans when many corporate doors were closed to them. He moved on to the University of Chicago, where he was in charge of the duplicating room in the law school, printing class materials. He always wore a coat and tie and carried a briefcase.

“He was a gentleman and he was respected by everyone because he took his job so seriously,” said Gladys Fuller, former administrative assistant to the dean of the law school.

Charles Barnwell | Supplied photo

The duplicating room hired young men from Hyde Park Career Academy. Mr. Barnwell helped teach them the importance of meeting deadlines, punctuality and pride in a job well done, according to his daughter Gail. She said that when Mr. Barnwell was in a hospital recently, “A nurse came up, and he said ‘I was one of the guys from Hyde Park Career Academy and you mentored me — he’s like a father to me.’ ”

“I don’t remember him calling [in] sick for work, ever,” his son said.

Weekends and spring breaks were for mowing the lawn, vacuuming, washing windows and mopping floors. Each of his five children had assignments. “He would say, Steve, I need you to go in that kitchen and mop the floor,” his son recalled. If Steve didn’t do the corners, he’d hear, “What’s this under here?”

“He taught me to draw birds flying, and trees,” said his daughter Phyllis. “He helped me with my school art projects.”

Mr. Barnwell was known for “dad jokes.” Once, he announced to his kids that he was on TV. They ran into the living room, Phyllis said, only to find “he was sitting on the big 25-inch box TV  with the legs.”

He retired about 20 years ago. Mr. Barnwell grew beautiful tomatoes, green beans and cucumbers, so his family never needed to buy vegetables in the summer and fall.

He is also survived by his son Gregg, eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. His wife, daughter Karen, and grandson Andre´ died before him. Services have been held.