Richard Colles Johnson


Died October 1, 1998

College: Silliman

Richard Colles (“Rick”) Johnson was born at Petoskey, Michigan on September 7, 1939. After graduating from Yale University in 1961, he earned masters’ degrees from the University of Michigan, in Library Science, in 1962 and from Northwestern University, in English Literature, in 1966. He was very much influenced by Donald Gallup who spent more than 30 years as a curator in the Yale Collection of American Literature. Rick took Gallup’s course in bibliography and after graduation from Yale, was asked to substitute for Gallup when he went on a short sabbatical.

Rick began his career at the Newberry Library as a Reference Librarian in 1963 and remained there for the rest of his life. His last position was as Bibliographer of American History and Literature. At the library, he played a key role in collection development, being instrumental in expanding the library’s collection of books, documents, and letters pertaining to English and American history, especially the rare book collection donated by Everett Graff, a former Newberry trustee. He was also an invaluable member of the staff of the Northwestern University – Newberry Library Edition of The Writings of Herman Melville.

Johnson was known for his doggedness and persistence in tracking down obscure sources and refuting overlooked erroneous statements, a characteristic that led him to be nicknamed “bulldog” by his colleagues. His intellectual curiosity, expertise, and knowledge were acknowledged by scholars who continually sought his counsel and assistance. Although he did not publish extensively, the scholarly quality of his articles was recognized by readers and publishers. Despite his pedantic interests, he did have a lighter side and, even, provided onsite help (with a stack tour) to an author for a mystery story set in the bowels of the library. Johnson’s loyalty, likeability, and friendships were evidenced by the large turnout for the memorial service at St Chrysostum’s Church in Chicago after his death in 1998.

From his maternal grandmother and great aunt, Johnson gained an interest in his Colles family heritage, which some claimed went back to the twelfth century in Worcestershire, England, and to the Sixteenth Century in Ireland. As early as 1956, Rick began contacting and corresponding with Colles relatives to seek information and documentation on the family. Using the indefatigable research skills carried over from his bibliographical studies, Rick was able to amass 13 boxes of correspondence and copies of documents that attest to the family’s longevity, intermarriages, and prominence.

Among Johnson’s Colles twentieth century relations was the first wife of the renowned cellist, Pablo Casals, and, also, the woman who attempted to assassinate the Italian Fascist leader, Benito Mussolini in 1926. His earlier relations include Christopher Colles, 1738-1816, an engineer, surveyor, and architect who emigrated to America where he became instrumental in laying the infrastructure of early New York, planning and proposing locks, canals, including the Erie canal, and other projects to open up inland navigation. He also proposed an early telegraph system. Another Colles relation, Abraham Colles, 1773-1843, was a prominent Dublin citizen, Professor of Surgery and President of the Royal College of Surgeons, for whom the Colles fracture is named. Still another, John Taylor Johnston, 1820-1893, was a founder of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Other Colles family and relations include prominent persons in Ireland, England, and America in government (e.g., a mayor of Kilkenny, Ireland), publishing, cartography, and musicology. Rick continued this lustrous and lasting work by his contributions to bibliography and librarianship until his death from lung cancer in 1998. He is survived by a brother, Malcolm, and a sister Deborah Reddick.

—adadpted from Newberry Library records