Life Remembered: Project Gutenberg founder Michael Hart 'did it his way'

URBANA — Friends and family of Michael Hart remember him not only as an early producer and proponent of e-books, but also as an inveterate garage-saler who embraced many interests and often proved good at them.

Mr. Hart, 64, of Urbana died Tuesday at his home. He was the founder of Project Gutenberg, a campaign to digitize the world's books. Today the project makes available more than 36,000 e-books in a multitude of languages.

A memorial service for Mr. Hart will be held at 1 p.m. Monday at Renner-Wikoff Chapel, Urbana. Burial will be in Woodlawn Cemetery, Urbana. Visitation will be from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday at the funeral home.

Mr. Hart's older brother, Bennett, said Michael was driven by the challenge of "how to get information to people on a broad scale" in languages and formats they could use.

"That was the light he was shooting at, so they could improve themselves," he said.

But Mr. Hart was often unorthodox in his approach.

Greg Newby, who collaborated with Mr. Hart on Project Gutenberg, described him as "definitely eccentric" and "resistant to compromise."

"If anyone epitomized Frank Sinatra, it was him. He did it his way," Bennett Hart said.

Mr. Hart was "a balance of extremes ... very reclusive but very effusive," Newby said. At Project Gutenberg, he had "a cast of thousands helping make his dream come true" as they typed in or scanned literary works.

Mr. Hart had a wide range of avocations through the years, including high-fidelity stereos, photography and stamps.

"Everybody here in town who has yard sales has seen him on his bike," Bennett Hart said.

Michael Hart used to go to Merry-Ann's Diner, have breakfast and plot out the best route for hitting 25 yard sales that day, his brother said.

Bennett Hart said his brother was an individualist, but not always anti-establishment. He was an Eagle Scout and served in the U.S. Army.

"He had a drive to go out and try things and do things. He didn't give up along the way. He would always do it to completion," Bennett Hart said.

Michael Hart's parents did cryptology work in Washington during World War II. His father, Hymen, later became a professor of English literature at the University of Illinois, specializing in Shakespeare, and his mother, Alice, became a professor of mathematics.

Michael Hart was born in Tacoma, Wash., and moved to Urbana with his family at age 11. He attended Thornburn Elementary, Urbana Junior High and Urbana High. Both he and his brother delivered The News-Gazette.

After graduating from high school in 1965, he studied chemical engineering at the UI, but didn't like it, his brother said.

Michael Hart then worked a short time at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange before being drafted into the Army and serving in Korea during the Vietnam era.

Later he traveled the West Coast, playing guitar in coffeehouses. He then decided to return to the UI, where he completed a bachelor's degree in interdisciplinary studies in 2 1/2 years, maintaining straight A's and graduating in 1973. He later did graduate work at Dartmouth College.

Although Mr. Hart thought of Tacoma as "his home away from home," he visited Hawaii several times in the last 15 or so years and was getting ready to relocate there, his brother said.

Bennett Hart said his brother had been getting tired in recent years, had problems with kidney stones and appeared to have had blockages.

But "in a world of complainers, he wasn't one," said Christina Heal, who considered him a dear friend.

Another friend, Victoria Moore, called Mr. Hart "very much an adventure."

Mr. Hart "always had to go off the beaten path," Heal said. Once, when they were on a trip to Washington, D.C., he had her pull off the road and flick the car lights, in order to see the fireflies respond, she said.

Bennett Hart said besides pushing Project Gutenberg, his brother pursued changes in copyright laws.

"He wasn't afraid to be the Don Quixote. He had to go out and tilt until the cows came home," Bennett Hart said. "He had the three things needed for that: the knowledge, the passion and the drive."

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jem40000 wrote on September 10, 2011 at 8:09 pm

I worked with Michael Hart on copyright related issues as mentioned by his brother Bennett above -- on some things we agreed and on others he vociferously disagreed with me.

I visited with MH for 4 days in fall of 2008 in C-U but he said that he would spend weekend time with me on one condition: Any time we spent in discussion had to be while I drove him around in my rental car to all the various garage sales in town.

parkmymeterelsewhere wrote on September 10, 2011 at 8:09 pm

As a fellow book lover and hi fi junkie Michael and I spent infrequent encounters in deep discussion about both areas of self interest. Even though we disagreed on many points f view, the exchanges were positive and enlightening.

ratryon wrote on September 10, 2011 at 9:09 pm
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I remember Michael Hart best for his keen intellectual ability to discuss and debate his position in more ways than most could begin to muster! His brilliant use of skills at solving early large scale computer problems for the Univ. of IL put him into a position of accepting what was back then expensive computer storage memory in lieu of pay.

They would not let him have it unless he could invent a good use for it. He did. Project Gutenberg!

I shall miss him.
Dick Tryon