Lester Stoffel, 92

Former Oak Park Public Library director

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Lester Lenneth Stoffel, 92, died on Dec. 31, 2012 at his Lisle home. Born in Lakewood, Ohio on April 14, 1920, he was the youngest of three. To the dismay of his engineer-trained father and namesake, he heeded Melvil Dewey's call for "missionaries of the book," and as a teenager in the mid-1930s, landed his first job cataloging books at the Lakewood Public Library.

He went on to complete his undergraduate degree in history at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio in 1942, before serving in WWII as a medic with the Army's 619th Medical Clearing Company. He took a leave from his training in Paris, Texas in July 1943 to marry his college sweetheart, Odette Feikert.

He held a variety of duties during his service on the western front, including one as a hospital administrator near Salzburg, Austria. He also took advantage of the GI bill to attend Cleveland's Western Reserve College, gaining a Master's in Library Science in 1949.

In the early 1960s, Mr. Stoffel championed the use of emerging technology and was an impassioned supporter of landmark state legislation that guaranteed support for libraries and inter-library cooperation. Lester Stoffel served as the first director of the Illinois Suburban Library System (SLS) from 1967 to 1985. With just nine public libraries at its start, it grew to include 40 by 1985, granting member libraries throughout Chicago's southwestern suburbs access to a shared catalog.

In the early 1970s, he served as president of the Library Leadership Management Association and was named Librarian of the Year by the Illinois Library Association (ILA). In 1971, he co-authored "Public Libraries in Cooperative Systems; Administrative Patterns for Service," with Ruth W. Gregory.

In 1955 he was appointed head librarian in Oak Park, where he served for 11 years and became a vocal advocate for shared library resources. The passage in 1965 of the Illinois Library System Act made every public library in the state a branch of every other — a model that is now standard both in the U.S. and abroad. He also oversaw the completion in May 1964 of a $1.1 million new main library in Oak Park, designed by Holabird & Root.

"He was a great boss," recalled his successor, Barbara Ballinger. "He told me, 'You run the library while I build a new one.'"

He began his tenure in Oak Park at the old Scoville Institute with its hidden stacks and spiral iron staircases. He didn't like the fact that patrons had to ask librarians to search for books and led the move to computerize the card catalog.

"He was very principled," recalled his daughter Jennifer. "He stayed very current and sought change." That included the burgeoning Open Housing movement in Oak Park. Mr. Stoffel became a member of the Committee on Human Rights. Ms. Stoffel recalls dinner parties with lots of discussion that got "very heated."

Lester Stoffel is survived by Odette, his wife of 69 years; his children, Carol (John) Allen, Christopher, Jennifer Stoffel (Stephen Phillips); three grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

A memorial service is being planned for the spring.

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