Deaths: Melvin Holli

Holli Melvin

Melvin Holli was a leading expert in U.S. urban and ethnic history.

Melvin Holli, 82, professor emeritus of history, died Jan. 7 in Carol Stream.

Holli was a leading expert in U.S. urban and ethnic history, with particular interests in American urban politics — notably Detroit and Chicago — and the biographies of big-city mayors.

Holli began at UIC in 1965 as an instructor and founding member in the history department. He advanced to full professor by 1975 and later served as department chair from 1991 to1994. He retired in 2003.

As a graduate student at the University of Michigan, Holli was influenced by Arthur Schlesinger Sr.’s expert-poll ranking of American presidents and he contemplated a similar work that would evaluate the nation’s big-city mayors.

The concept came to fruition with his notable 1999 book The American Mayor: The Best & The Worst Big-City Leaders, which was based on Holli’s own nationwide poll of urban historians and political scientists that covered more than 700 mayors of the nation’s 15 largest cities, from 1820 to the 1990s.

Holli wrote numerous articles and authored or edited 18 books, including Reform in Detroit: Hazen S. Pingree and Urban Politics, The Biographical Dictionary of American Mayors, 1820-1980, The Mayors: The Chicago Political Tradition, Bashing Chicago Traditions: Harold Washington’s Last Campaign, Restoration: Chicago Elects a New Daley, and A View From Chicago’s City Hall: Mid Century To Millennium.

Dick Simpson, professor of political science and a former Chicago alderman, said Holli’s books and teaching imparted critical understanding to Chicago politics and the role of American mayors.

“He and his colleagues in the history department trained nearly every major Chicago history scholar,” Simpson said. “He helped to make UIC the leading university of Chicago and urban history and politics.”

Richard Fried, professor emeritus of history, recalls Holli as “one of those colleagues who could give valuable advice on others’ research.”

Holli had formal training as an archivist and throughout his career collected manuscripts and historical documents related to the urban and immigration history of Chicago. Many of these documents, including the speeches of Mayor Richard J. Daley and letters of Jane Addams, now form part of the UIC Library’s Special Collections Department.

In a Chicago Tribune obituary, Ronald Legon, former UIC history department chairman and former dean of the graduate college, said Holli “took this mission very seriously and cultivated relationships with a number of key political figures, community activists and ethnic organizations, in order to give them the confidence to turn over their papers to this collection.”

“He built an extraordinary collection, which today is one of the main sources of information about the growth of Chicago and its ethnic communities and political leaders,” Legon added.

He was a two-time Fulbright recipient (1978, 1989). In 1969, Holli was awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship for University Teachers.

Over the course of his career, print and broadcast media from around the country interviewed him for perspective and expertise on urban and ethnic history and politics.

Holli, a native of Ishpeming, Michigan, received a bachelor’s degree from Northern Michigan University and master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Michigan.

He is survived by his wife, Dr. Betsy B. Holli, his son, Steven Holli, and his daughter, Susan Swinford.

A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. Feb. 13 at Anderson Auditorium
in the Wyndemere Retirement Community, 200 Wyndemere Circle, Wheaton.

Memorials can be made to the Alzheimer’s Association or the
U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame.

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