Interesting Times at Van Pelt

There aren’t many people who remember the campus before Van Pelt Library was built,
but one person who does is Frank Stamato. He’s also the one to thank for a series of photos documenting the building’s construction, the subject of an ongoing exhibit in the library’s first-floor Kamin Gallery.

Stamato has worked for Penn’s library system since October 1958. Fresh out of the service, he came to interview for a job in the carpentry shop, where his father worked, but wound up getting hired in the library because he knew his way around a 35-mm camera, used for microfilming.

As part of the effort to make the case for a new library building, Stamato was asked to photograph all the departmental libraries “to show what kind of shape they were in.” Then, after approval was given by the trustees, he was enlisted to document the new building’s construction. “I would go out, like once a week, to take pictures of everything,” he says, “which I did, from the day they started it.”

Sadly, Stamato’s photographs of the departmental libraries at mid-century disappeared at some point. The construction photos also seemed lost. Back when he was taking them, he would develop his film, put the prints in a dated folder, and they would then be filed. At some point they went missing. For his part, Stamato forgot about them over the years.

Then one day he overheard John Pollack, the library specialist for public programs, lamenting to Libraries Director H. Carton Rogers “about the library being 50 years old, and they don’t have anything,” he says, and he remembered the photos. When he was told they were nowhere to be found, “I said, ‘Well, I have the negatives.’” He brought them from home, where they’d been stored in an old tin; they were digitized at the library’s Schoenberg Center for Electronic Text & Image, and the rest is refound history.

Stamato was “going on 21” when he started at Penn, and turned 75 in August. His job these days is to handle internal copying needs and service the library’s photocopiers. He helped organize the union—“Local 590. Matter of fact, I’m the last survivor of the original organizers”—and doesn’t seem in any hurry to retire. “Penn has been very, very good to me,” he says.

And while he allows that “it was interesting when they were building this place,” his role in documenting the construction is not his most memorable experience related to Van Pelt. That would have to be the time in the 1970s when he saved a man’s life.

He was exiting Van Pelt from the Walnut Street side, “and a bucket came down and splattered,” he says. He looked up to see a window-washer, whose scaffolding had given way, clinging to the sixth-floor ledge “like Spiderman.” He charged up the stairs—“back then I was able to do it”—and out to the terrace, reached over and grabbed the window-washer by his belt, and hoisted him up and over the ledge.

After Stamato had gotten him to safety, the window-washer’s partner showed up. “We got on the elevator, and I said, ‘Are you OK? You want a drink of water?’ He said, ‘No, I’m OK, I’m OK.’ His friend said, ‘You know, you could have got killed.’ And the guy faints, right in the elevator,” Stamato says.

“Yeah, that was some effort. I’m glad it was the bucket, and not him.”—J.P.


Nov|Dec 2012 Contents
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