Longtime Sun-Times library assistant Zigis ‘Ziggy’ Ulmanis dies at 83

A refugee from Latvia, he had respect for reporters and editors.

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Zigis “Ziggy” Ulmanis searches through the Sun-Times library in the pre-internet days.

Sun-Times Library

When Zigis “Ziggy” Ulmanis worked in the Sun-Times Library in the days before the internet, he never liked to mark “NG” on a slip of paper requesting information, which meant “no good,” or that he couldn’t find a newspaper clipping or photo a reporter or editor had requested.

Mr. Ulmanis also was known in the newspaper’s newsroom for bringing whatever research results he found right to reporters’ desks instead of expecting them to return to the library to pick them up.

“He had a respect for reporters,” said his wife of 60 years, Charlotte Ulmanis. “He knew they were trying to do their stories, and he didn’t want them to have to stop.”

Mr. Ulmanis died May 21 at age 83 at Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove of metastasized cancer. He had been battling bladder cancer since 1984.

Mr. Ulmanis, christened Zigismunts, a name he changed to Zigis after he came to the United States, was born in 1938 in Riga, Latvia. After the Soviet Union invaded Latvia in 1940, Mr. Ulmanis, his mother, his older brother and younger sister fled to Germany, separated from his father, who remained in Latvia.

First they sailed on a ship across the Baltic Sea as bombs landed around them, and then they rode in a wagon, under which they slept at night. They eventually wound up in a displaced persons camp near Nuremberg, Germany, where they stayed until after World War II.

Sponsored by an American family, Mr. Ulmanis’ family came to the United States when Mr. Ulmanis was 11 or 12 and moved to Fennville, Michigan, where they lived in a garage and picked produce, including cauliflower, which gave Mr. Ulmanis a lifelong distaste for the vegetable. When he was in his teens, they moved to several locations in Chicago before moving to the Lincoln Park neighborhood. In Chicago, Mr. Ulmanis got a job cleaning floors for 25 cents an hour.

As a hobby, he took up weightlifting, starting out by lifting pipes in his basement, and he placed third in a 1958-59 statewide junior weightlifting competition. Charlotte Ulmanis recalled he made $25 an hour posing for magazines while she was making $1 working at the soda fountain in a Walgreens.

“He was a quiet person, and he had a lot of friends,” recalled Mr. Ulmanis’ sister, Sarmite Patterson. “He was a very nice and very warm person.”

Mr. Ulmanis attended Lincoln Park High School, then known as Waller High School, where a friend introduced the couple to each other. He later attended Wright Junior College, now known as Wilbur Wright College.

In 1959, the Sun-Times hired him as a copy boy, and a year later the newspaper hired Charlotte Ulmanis as a “copy boy” as well. The couple were married in 1961. Mr. Ulmanis was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1961, but his hitch ended one month before his unit was sent to Vietnam. He returned to the Sun-Times and subsequently went to work in the newspaper’s library. Charlotte Ulmanis went on to become a longtime editorial assistant in the Editorial Page department.

At times, Mr. Ulmanis and others who fled Latvia would gather to talk about the experiences they’d had decades ago in Europe, which often led to crying by some of those present, Charlotte Ulmanis said. Mr. Ulmanis could never abide waiting in restaurants because of his memories of waiting in line for a soup bowl in a DP camp, she said. He also remained uncomfortable during thunderstorms because of the sounds of artillery fire he heard while in the camp, she said.

During his career in the library, Mr. Ulmanis witnessed the transformation of information retrieval from packets of yellowing newspaper clips and manila folders stuffed with photographs to online data sources. The couple volunteered to retire in 2002 at a time when the newspaper announced it would make layoffs.

Mr. Ulmanis had a lifelong interest in history. He read history magazines and followed the events in Ukraine in the last weeks of his life.

Burial will be private.

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