Baltic Sea

The Sun-Times’ longtime librarian Zigis “Ziggy” Ulmanis has died at the age of 83

When Zigis “Ziggy” Ulmanis worked at the Sun Times library in the days before the internet, he never marked “NG” on a piece of paper to request information, which meant “not good” or that he couldn’t find in a newspaper clipping or a photo requested by a reporter or editor.

Mr. Ulmanis was also known on the newspaper’s editorial board for taking any research he found straight to reporters’ desks, rather than expecting them to return to the library to pick it up.

“He had respect for reporters,” said his 60-year-old wife, Charlotte Ulmanis. “He knew they were trying to tell their stories and he didn’t want them to stop.”

Mr Ulmanis died of metastatic cancer on Saturday at the Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove, aged 83. He had been battling bladder cancer since 1984.

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

First they sailed the Baltic Sea on a ship while bombs landed around them, and then they rode in a carriage under which they slept at night. They eventually ended up in a camp for displaced persons near Nuremberg, 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 years old and moved to Fennville, Michigan, where they lived in a garage and picked produce, including cauliflower, which Mr Ulmanis developed a lifelong dislike for the vegetable. When he was a teenager, 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.

He took up weightlifting as a hobby, began lifting pipes in his basement, and finished third in a national junior weightlifting competition in 1958-59. Charlotte Ulmanis recalled that he made $25 an hour posing for magazines, while she made $1 working on the soda fountain at a Walgreens.

“He was a quiet person and had many 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. 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 also hired Charlotte Ulmanis as a “copy boy.” The couple married in 1961. Mr. Ulmanis was drafted into the US Army in 1961, but his breakdown ended a month before his unit was sent to Vietnam. He returned to the Sun-Times and then worked in the newspaper’s library. Charlotte Ulmanis later became a longtime editorial assistant in the editorial department.

At times, Mr Ulmanis and others who fled Latvia would meet to talk about their experiences in Europe decades ago, which often brought tears to tears from some of those present, Charlotte Ulmanis said. Mr Ulmanis could never bear to wait in restaurants because he remembered queuing for a bowl of soup at a DP camp, she said. He also felt uncomfortable during thunderstorms because of the sounds of artillery fire he heard around camp, she said.

During his library career, Mr. Ulmanis witnessed the transformation of information retrieval from packets of faded newspaper clippings and Manila binders full of photos to online data sources. The couple volunteered for retirement in 2002 when the newspaper announced layoffs.

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

The funeral will be private.