By WENDELL HUTSON
The longest serving volunteer at the Chicago Cultural Center, who is also a longtime Hyde Park resident, was recently honored by the city of Chicago for his service.
Charles G. Staples, 87, began volunteering at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St., in 1994 where he continues to volunteer one day a week. And for his service Mayor Rahm Emanuel along with Mark Kelly, commissioner for the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, this year designated May 3 as “Charles G. Staples Day” during a ceremony at the Chicago Cultural Center.
“I didn’t think it was going to be a big deal when Commissioner Kelly told me about it,” Staples said. “I thought it was going to be a simple reception but as it turned out I was given my own day and a Proclamation signed by the mayor.”
The arts lover said his favorite Chicago museum is the Art Institute and he has loved arts for as long as he can remember. In 1951, Staples moved to Chicago from Providence, RI, where he grew up, and later earned a mater’s degree in Social Work from the University of Chicago in 1961. He also earned a bachelor’s in Fine Arts from Marlboro College in Vermont.
According to city officials, the cultural center is a big tourist attraction each year.
“The Chicago Cultural Center (also known as “The People’s Palace”) is beloved by Chicagoans and visitors alike as an architectural showplace and a center for art, music and more‚Äîalways free,” said Jamey Lundblad, a spokesman for the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. “It is owned by the city of Chicago and managed by the¬†Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events.”
Lundblad added that Staples’ role working at the information desk in the cultural center’s lobby where he hands out information pamphlets and answering questions from guests is crucial to the center’s success.
“The Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events relies on its nearly 90 dedicated volunteers [such as Charles Staples] to provide information, lead tours and greet the public at a wide range of free cultural venues and events,” Lundblad said.
Lundblad added that recognizing Staples for his volunteer work was a special honor because he worked to save the Chicago Cultural Center from being torn down.
“Charles G. Staples played a significant leadership role in the preservation campaign to save the magnificent Chicago Cultural Center (formerly the Chicago Public Library) from possible demolition in the 1960s and 1970s,” Lundblad said. “[He]¬†successfully led an effort to landmark the Chicago Cultural Center, which is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.”
It was more than 40 years ago when the Downtown cultural center was being considered for demolition.
“I was not going to let this beautiful building fall to the wayside,” recalled Staples. “I’m proud to see my efforts paid off.”
Staples said he volunteers a few hours every Wednesday and plans to volunteer as long as he can especially since he meets people from all over he world.
“In 1998 I met a retired, Baptist minister, who visited the cultural center, and we have been close friends ever since,” Staples said. “My wife and I stay with him whenever we are in Oakland, California.”
Prior to becoming a volunteer at the cultural center Staples spent 27 years working as a social worker for Chicago Public Schools. Staples said he worked mostly at elementary schools in urban neighborhoods on the South Side and often had to do home visits.
“The underlying problem I saw with most of the kids I worked with was poverty. I remember going to high-rise buildings to visit them and the elevators were old and would get stuck a lot,” recalled Staples. “That’s why I hate that President [Donald] Trump is cutting back on funding social services programs. It is a service badly needed in the inner-city, and I am very disturbed by his actions.”
When Staples is not volunteering at the cultural center he enjoys traveling and spending quality time with his wife Joan.
“I have been married to my wife for 54 years and she was instrumental in my campaign to save the cultural center,” Staples said. “She was like my personal secretary and kept all the files and paperwork for me. I don’t know if I would have been successful at saving the cultural center without her. She is truly a blessing to me.”
The couple often travels domestically and internationally and among Staples favorite places to visit is France.
“We traveled to France two years ago and I loved it there,” Staples said. “China, South America and Russia are other places we visited.”