In memoriam – Charles Daas

Charlie Daas

Charlie was a dear friend, a rare friend, one who cared about his friends and everyone in a deep way. I think all his friends remember him like this. He was a friend who thinks mostly of you rather than himself.

I felt he was actually grateful to know me. He was thankful for our friendship. He asked with open interest about my comings and goings. He cared deeply about me. As he cared for all his friends. So the loss of him leaves of deeper and more melancholy void. There are not many friends like Charlie. He can’t be replaced.

Charles Daas

Charlie in action – talking policy & planning

His caring came with a great gregarious spirit. It came with a happy, hopeful laughter that always sought to see the bright side and lift the spirit. This is to say that Charlie was, truly, more than most anyone else I’ve known (certainly much more than me) a ‘people person.’ And there was little of selfishness in him.

Charlie lived not for money, nor prestige, nor recognition. He lived for friendship. Friendships were the vital essence of his life. And his life, seen in perspective, would probably appear as a story of long-lasting friendships reaching back to early youth and woven across the years.

And this came to be apparent in the course of his career. In his work he was devoted to people, to neighborhoods, to communities. He found his niche in planning and the non-profit sector. We were students together in the ‘planning program’ at Circle/UIC.  That’s where I met him and met a friend who never failed in friendship.

This career in planning and non-profits did not always go very well. The non-profit sector is a rather rough, rather poor, world to make a living in. Charlie struggled to make a living in his last years as illness set in. Few breaks came his way, career-wise, when he was beset with hospitalizations, long stretches of under-employment and frustrated efforts to find good work. Nobody would hire this guy. Yet he loved his career – to the end he never became bitter about that.

As a great believer in people he was a great believer in planning. Unlike me, who long ago became disenchanted with it, he remained a believer. Actually it wasn’t so much a matter of belief and more a matter of who he was. He believed in the power of public action to achieve good, to make life better for everyone. It was simply in his nature to believe in that.

Charlie grew up in Grosse Pointe in the Detroit area. His father, of Lebanese descent, died when Charlie was a young man. He remained very close to his mother and to his sister Mary throughout his life. As a child he worked in his parent’s gift shop, the Penny Whistle, which probably gave him his love for antiques and such things. He was quite proud of his antique toy collection, which included a big red fire truck made of metal, a circa-1920s toy that was a favorite piece in his collection.

He was an alumnus of the University of Michigan and the University of Illinois at Chicago where he studied, along with me, urban planning. He was a fundraiser, educator and community development professional with a career spanning 25 years. He specialized in and was devoted to issues of affordable housing, neighborhood economic development and advocacy. His work was important, interesting and useful.

He served as executive director of Chicago Mutual Housing Network. He was an editor of Affordable Housing Cooperatives: Their Conditions and Prospects in Chicago (2004). He was principal of his own consultancy City Solutions. He was at his best when working in close contact with communities and neighborhood groups. He was in his element working with local folks.

Charlie served on the Chicago Community Loan Fund’s Board of Directors for 17 years. He was a staunch advocate for limited equity housing (i.e., co-ops) and wrote policy papers on land trusts and shared-equity housing for CCLF to use in Chicago’s Woodlawn area.  He wrote a white paper for a ‘Center for Shared Ownership’ that would support housing co-ops and affordable condominiums. It would be run by the Chicago Rehab Network and CCLF with support from the City of Chicago. He helped CCLF purchase ‘www.chicagocoop.net’ – a website to connect the Chicago area’s housing cooperative community.

Charlie loved planning because he loved cities. He loved Chicago. He loved Detroit. He had a smattering of French that he picked up in college and he loved all things French, especially Paris. Italy – Rome – was not far behind. He was a very urban person. To live amidst a close crowd of people, all sorts of people, was his joy. And there was in him much of the urbane, in the best sense of the word, in the sense of being aware and appreciative of the subtle pleasures of civilization.

good friends

Good friends – Charlie & me at his son Spencer’s baptism

He would agree, I think, with Aristotle’s dictum in the Politics, that to be fully human is to live and participate in the life of a city.

He and Heather were raising their boys in a spacious apartment on Lunt Street on the far north side, in a lovely vintage brick apartment building. It stands in a handsome row of apartments and houses along the south edge of Indian Boundary Park. Charlie would have lived happily in that city apartment til old age.

The wood shelves of their apartment were filled with his antique toys and his books. His library contained all the classics of urban planning and urbanism and he kept adding to it, reading avidly to the end of his life. He was quite knowledgeable of the history, lore and traditions of city planning, having read the writings of the major planners and thinkers on the topic. We had some good late evening conversations about all of this.

The last few years of his life were plagued by kidney failure and its consequences that became a cascade of deadly complications. He lost one leg and part of his foot. He suffered infections and sickness. He was tied for hours and hours to the dialysis machine. He told me once that he felt he would not live to see his sons grow up. He told me this in matter of fact way, in a pondering moment, not sadly or fearfully.

Amazingly, his loss of limb and many pleasures of life did not seem to really bother him. He was not angry or resentful about it. The overriding sense about him was his enjoyment of friendships, his love of his two sons and his commitment to his work. It’s as if his deteriorating body would not, could not, get in his way. Nothing could stymie his enthusiasm for what is really important in life.

Spencer's baptism

Heather and Charlie with sons Griffin and Spencer, at Spencer’s baptism in St. Clement church Chicago

One chilly night last October I got a call from him. He sounded weak and I knew something was wrong. He was in the hospital in Virginia, where he had gone to live with his mother and be near his sister; he lost his other leg. He was very subdued, a little delirious. Even in this state he asked about me, inquiring about my life and doings. I felt sad about the trials he had endured and amazed at the strength of his spirit.

He had gone through a lot; a bankruptcy, a difficult divorce. Still he lived, still he loved. To the planning profession, which had given him so little, he had given so much. He loved people, he loved planning, to the end.

He loved teaching and taught undergraduate students at UIC for several years. As an adjunct they didn’t pay him much and even took away his teaching work as their finances and his illness worsened. Still he won an award for teaching excellence, voted on by the undergraduate students there. He was quite proud of that for a while.

If ever a man had the gift of gab it was Charlie, and it was good gab not nonsense. He talked about planning, he talked about cities, he talked about housing, he talked about people. He talked about his many friends and their work in different places. He shared all of this with the young students at UIC and they must have found it quite interesting. If I were a kid in college I would have liked Charlie, too.

In his last few years I often visited him and the boys, in his rather disheveled little apartment up by Horner Park. We made dinner on Saturday evenings and played board games til the boys went to bed. Then Charlie and I would chat for a bit, but he grew tired early and felt drowsy so I didn’t stay long. I think the medications dragged him down. It seemed a long time since the party he and Heather had years ago, a New Year’s party when we dined and danced til late in their place. And the sunny spring Sunday when we celebrated Spencer’s baptism, when they invited me to stand as godfather for their son. I remember these warmly as good times with friends.

We grasp for good friends in memory when they are gone. And, when we reach an advanced age in life and look back across the years we recall the friends, the significant friends, who’ve crossed the time together with us. Among the dearest of these is Charlie. He was a great man. He will be missed.

4 thoughts on “In memoriam – Charles Daas

  1. Liz O’ Rourke says:

    We were neighbors on Lincoln in Grosse Pointe. Our oldest daughter babysat for Charles and Martha. (She tells a fun story about taking him to the movie “JAWS”! )We loved his parents and enjoyed whenever we could be with them. Have not had contact in ages but they still reside in my heart. Our love to Martha and Mary. And prayers for his sons! He will be missed

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