I knew Ralph Newman for more than half a century and he never ceased to amaze me. He was an American original, a self-made man, and a public relations master. His fabulous career defied imagination, except perhaps that of Saul Bellow, and one had to know him to believe in his reality.
Like many other bookmen, Ralph Newman drifted into business by chance. After graduating from high school in 1929, he attended Crane College for one year without finding anything there that interested him, then worked in a downtown bank until he discovered that nobody missed him when he left one afternoon to watch a baseball game. One year at Northwestern University provided little beyond two free summers to play minor league second base for Tucson and Wichita.
Returning to Chicago he stumbled across an old, well-stocked bookstore that had succumbed to the depression and was for sale cheap. He approached friends in the bank for money to buy it, but could get the money at usurious interest only on condition that he apply all receipts to the loan until it was repaid. Newman immediately slashed prices so drastically that rival booksellers staggered out of his shop with armloads of books and crocodile tears for the young man's ignorance. In a few weeks, however, Newman had repaid his loan and still had eighty percent of his stock.
With $500 of additional borrowed capital Newman opened his own bookshop in 1933 on Lincoln's Birthday in the La Salle Street Chicago Daily News building. The date was coincidental; Newman planned to sell a general line of second-hand books. The course of the enterprise was altered, however, by two employees of the Daily News who became regular customers: Carl Sandburg and Lloyd Lewis. Sandburg had already published the first two volumes of his Lincoln biography and was preparing four more; Lewis, author of Myths After Lincoln and a biography of William T. Sherman, was beginning to focus on General Grant. Newman added Lincoln and Civil War stock to accommodate them and attracted more Civil War customers. In 1940, he abandoned his general line and renamed his enterprise the Abraham Lincoln Book Shop. As the shop became more specialized it took on the characteristics of a club of Civil War
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enthusiasts. In 1940 these bibulous bibliophiles organized the Civil War Round Table, the first of some 300 established throughout the world. So loyal were Newman's customers that they ran his shop for him while he served in the Navy during World War II.
In the field of Civil War books and manuscripts, Newman moved to a leading, if not dominating, position. He could spot Lincoln forgeries across the room. He began to expect and receive from his customers recognition that he was the expert; that in a field where values were always uncertain, his decisions should stand. "We don't sell anything in the Abraham Lincoln Book Shop," Newman said, "Our customers buy."
In 1952, after his friend Adlai Stevenson received the Democratic nomination for President, Newman published a handsome limited edition of Stevenson's two speeches to the convention (one welcoming the delegates, the other accepting the nomination) almost as soon as the words were out of the candidate's mouth. As a man close to the Democratic leader and in possession of a coveted book, Newman soon expanded his circle of acquaintances and his own horizons. As a result of his connection with Governor Stevenson, Newman took over management of the concessions at New Salem State Park in 1953. As he began to operate the concessions he discovered that he had become entitled to the respect of other businessmen; he had graduated from dealings in eccentric merchandise like books and manuscripts to such reliable commodities as soft drinks and souvenirs. From that point Newman began to look for new fields for his restless energies.
He became the nation's leading manuscript appraiser, serving public figures from the highest government officials to the lowest, Richard Nixon, who betrayed Newman, as he did all other Americans. That blow hurt, but Newman recovered to regain preeminence in his field.
Working in the book shop in the early 1950s provided a teenage stock boy with an inadvertent education and a daily adventure. Interesting visitors included Bruce Catton, Ben Thomas, Nancy Davis (not yet Mrs. Reagan), and a nine-year-old girl who mistook the place for a library and came in daily for weeks to finish reading a book that intrigued her. Some people came as tourists to visit the only bookshop included in a guide to Civil War sites. Old friends came to socialize, prompting the frequent lament, "I ought to sell drinks and give books away." Genuine customers, sometimes dismayed that books bore no prices, waited until the boss reluctantly assigned one. If those prices caused dismay, the boss intoned that "It'll never be cheaper," a prediction verified by time.
The boss occupied the fourth room he had selected as his office. The first three had become too cluttered for use. Beneath the desks he had jammed boxes full of correspondence he had meticulously filed but neglected to answer. All who worked in the shop complained incessantly about Newman's business habits; all were intensely loyal, and he returned that loyalty. Newman was first to publish an 1858 letter in which Lincoln wrote: "My judgment is that we must never sell old friends to buy old enemies." That sentiment could have been Newman's own.
In 1962, Newman joined Civil War Centennial cronies in founding a Ulysses S. Grant Association, co-signing a bank note for initial funding. For 28 years he served as the Grant Association's president, and all its publications are a credit to his steadfast patronage of history. He brought vigorous, resourceful, and imaginative leadership to each of his historical activities. Those skills gave him an honored place on the dais at many gatherings, where, during after-dinner speeches, he habitually fell asleep and never missed anything important.
He published several books with his name on the title page. Far more books honored him among acknowledgments, for his great talent lay in facilitating scholarship. In addition to active participation in dozens of historical organizations, Newman energetically guided the Chicago Public Library and filled many other libraries with superb collections.
As his hearing worsened, Mr. Newman developed a disconcerting habit of ending telephone conversations by hanging up the phone without saying goodbye or giving others that chance. We have met here today to say goodbye.
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