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Remembering Leslie H. Fishel jr., 1921-2010

Three images of Leslie H. Fishel jr. in different stages of his life and career

Leslie H. Fishel jr., the seventh director of the Wisconsin Historical Society, died on September 8 at the age of 88. His wife Barbara R. Fishel died October 23. A memorial service for both Les and Barbara Fishel will be held at First Congregational Church, 1609 University Avenue in Madison, at 1 pm Sunday, November 14. At the family's request, a catered reception will be held at the Wisconsin Historical Society following the service. The reception is open to the public. Fishel served as the Society's director during a period of enormous and fast-paced growth from 1959 to 1969, leaving the post to become president of Heidelberg College in Tiffin, Ohio.

A Distinguished Historian and African-American History Authority

After serving as commander of a submarine chaser in the Caribbean and South Atlantic during World War II, Fishel entered Harvard University as a postgraduate student, earning his doctorate in history in 1954. Fishel distinguished himself as a scholar of African-American history, penning a doctoral thesis titled "Northern Prejudice and Negro Suffrage, 1865-1870." He later co-edited three editions of "The Black American: A Documentary History" with fellow historian, Benjamin Quarles.

Steered Development of the Society's Civil Rights Collections

Fishel's interest in African-American history, and the tumultuous racial conflicts of the 1960s, helped steer development of one of the Society's most important collections — letters, records, photographs and other materials documenting the civil rights movement. During his tenure the Society acquired the records of the Congress of Racial Equality, the largest and probably most prominent of the Society's civil rights collections. Another treasure is the papers of Daisy Bates who spearheaded the integration of Little Rock Central High School, an event that riveted the nation in 1957 and resulted in making segregation of schools illegal.

Other Legacies of a Distinguished Career

Fishel was instrumental in reinvigorating the Society's innovative network of 13 Area Research Centers to make the Society's archival collections available to local researchers throughout the state. He also recognized the importance of documenting and preserving local history, adding an office of local history to the Society staff and initiating the Wisconsin Council for Local History, the umbrella organization that unites the Society with its affiliated local historical societies that now number more than 375. Fishel also oversaw a 100,000-square-foot addition to the Society's headquarters building, completed in 1968.

Under Fishel's watch, two other exceedingly important initiatives were born: the comprehensive, six-volume "History of Wisconsin" series and the vision of an outdoor museum of ethnic history that ultimately became Old World Wisconsin. Fishel retired in 1988, and he and Mrs. Fishel returned to Madison. He is survived by two sons, two daughters and seven grandchildren.

:: Posted November 8, 2010

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