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 In Memoriam:

 Charles F. Cummings



This column has usually been reserved for essays regarding the city of Newark located in the State of New Jersey.  This month we are forced sadly to divert our attention to the demise of one of its most notable and honorable citizens; Charles F. Cummings.  A tall man both in physical, as well as in noble stature, he was by all accounts a gentle caring person, who loved above all else the books, and artifacts of a city’s and state’s historical record.


Charles Cummings was a graduate of Vanderbilt University who moved to Newark in 1963 and began his life’s work as a librarian at the Newark Public Library. Over the years he took on various duties; archivist, curator, Director of Special Collections, and as the official Historian for a city which he grew to love enormously.  His love was endeared across the pages of newspapers long ago silenced, and the dog-eared pages of books yellowed by time and salvaged by microfilm.


Charles was more than just a librarian, at least this is how I saw him; he was a fellow enthusiast for facts, figures and knowledge, long forgotten and yearning to be resurrected by historians, journalists, and students.


Always the consummate professional and enthusiast of history, he literally lived and breathed the minutiae of the glorious past; whether it were scientific accomplishments, labor or military struggles, or the details surrounding the great personages of Newark’s history; their former haunts, their homes.  Whatever your search or query concerning Newark or New Jersey, you could be sure to find yourself an ally in such a quest, in Charles Cummings.


I found him always quiet in demeanor, one who spoke in a low tone sparing words except by measured form.  His command of facts reminded me of his peers at larger and more prestigious libraries, centers for research like the Library of Congress or the New York City Public Library, but even at such sites you would strain to find someone as polished, authoritative, or devoted as Charles Cummings.


He was pronounced historian of the city of Newark, but that in itself fell short of the honor that was his due.  By his activity and sheer presence he raised the standards of a city institution, its library—but indeed too the prestige of the city.  He raised the image of a city, beset by the picayune politics of a meandering backwater polity, to a level of respectability.


I can still envisage him hunched over his desk, or sitting cradling the phone, as he often did, between his shoulder and ear, thumbing through some index while voicing sources of information in a low whisper; or darting off to the stacks to retrieve some valuable treasure trove of information.  No question was found unworthy of his attention; you knew this instinctively because he would gather materials with you while suggesting other sources to try, often returning to you half an hour later with some other suggestions.


The author Philip Roth recently said of him; “The density of my books about the lives of Newarkers was all the richer because of the many questions Charles answered for me and the many places in Newark that he alone knew of and took me to see… I doubt that Charles knew or would believe that he has earned heroic stature by the seemingly workaday labors of librarian and city historian, but I want to take this opportunity to declare that he was indeed nothing less…” (1)


The archivist, the chronicler, the raconteur is now gone.  This city has lost more than a librarian, or mere historian; it has lost one who gave it respectability through his labor to shine a light on the great deeds of this city’s past, or on the ideals that resulted in great accomplishments.  This city, and its people were privileged to have him as their librarian these many years, and we all owe him a debt that I don’t really believe can ever be repaid.  Indeed, he deserves to be remembered as Roth suggests, as nothing less than heroic.


Victor Saraiva 



Photo credit: Newark Public Library



(1) "A great Newark hero" by Philip Roth



Posted  December 30, 2005

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