Sandy Berman's campaign to have commemorative stamps issued to honor two legendary labor leaders faces years of work, a massive federal bureaucracy and the likelihood of ending in frustration. In other words, it's right up his alley.
"I hear the word quixotic a lot," the retired Hennepin County librarian said of comparisons to Don Quixote, the fictional Spanish character through whom the phrase "tilting at windmills" came to represent tackling impossible quests. "Except sometimes I beat the windmills," Berman added with a chuckle.
During his 26 years as the county's head cataloger, which ended when he retired in 1999, he gained national fame among his peers by getting the Library of Congress to change its esoteric catalog headings into everyday language. "Electric lamp, incandescent" was changed to "light bulb," for instance.
His supporters say that he persuaded the agency to see things his way, but some inside the agency -- including one who wrote a memo dismissing him as "a major pain in the [posterior]" -- would argue that he simply pestered it into acquiescence. Either way, he figures, he defeated the windmill.
Fortunately for the folks at the Library of Congress, he's focused on the Postal Service these days. He's spearheading a campaign to issue commemorative stamps for Eugene Debs, a leader of railway and mine workers' strikes at turn of the 20th century, and Mary Harris Jones, who organized mine and mill workers starting in the 1890s, focused much of her work on ending child labor and eventually became known as Mother Jones.
It has all the makings of another windmill quest. He's been at it since 2005, and has no idea if he's any closer now.
"You deal with the Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee, and it's a very secretive process," he said. "They won't respond directly to the person making the nomination except for sending out a boilerplate notice that they have received the nomination and are considering it."
The good news for Berman is that he hasn't gotten another letter saying that the nomination has been rejected. The bad news is that the committee gets up to 40,000 inquiries a year and only about 20 of them actually become commemorative stamps.
Nonetheless, he exudes confidence that not only will the stamps be issued, but that it will be relatively soon. Working out of his home in Edina, where some of the walls are nearly invisible under the montages of his grandchildren's photographs and crayon drawings, he has organized a national letter-writing campaign.
"Hopefully, we're building up some momentum with all the support letters," he said. "And I've sent [the committee] five or six updates. Not additional nominations, but information that I have uncovered as I have done more research" about Debs and Jones.
Puzzled by other stamps
Berman, 78, admits to being flustered by some of the commemorative stamps that have been issued since he started his campaign.
"I don't want to put down anyone else's stamp," he insisted, "but they've issued stamps for Mother Teresa and [Mexican artist] Frida Kahlo and [French singer] Edith Piaf, who weren't Americans. And they've issued stamps for cartoon characters [among them Homer Simpson] who aren't even real!"
The published criteria say that the subjects must be "both interesting and educational." Berman is adamant that Debs and Jones qualify. They spent decades on the front lines of the labor movement back in the days when "front lines" was not a euphemism. Troops often were brought in to confront unions, and violence frequently ensued.
"There's a real teachable moment here," he said. "There's an opportunity for younger people to learn a piece of American history that is not routinely taught in school."
Because of the magazine named for Mother Jones and a song written in her honor by folk legend Woody Guthrie, Jones' name rings a bell with many people. Berman's bigger challenge is educating the general public about Debs, said Steve Fesenmaier, a board member of the West Virginia Labor History Association.
"Everybody knows her, but few people outside West Virginia recognize his name," he said. "Eugene Debs was very active with the West Virginia miners and was a leader of the Socialist Party. Not many people realize how important the Socialist Party was here at that time. You were either with them or against them."
Their stamps could be approved separately, but Berman is hoping that the two nominations move forward together.
"For one thing, I like the mix: one man and one woman," he said. "Plus, they both were bigger than just labor. They raised social-justice issues and women's-rights issues. There's a legacy there."
Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392