Federico Acerri, who answered students' questions, dies at 81

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Federico Acerri, who answered students' questions, dies at 81
A photo provided by Douglas Nemanic shows Federico Acerri in 2011. In the background are portraits of him by other artists. Acerri, who was an information specialist in the Michigan school system, where he worked for decades, and was also a prolific artist, drawing under the name Mad Monk, died on April 12, 2020, at the Ascension St. John Hospital in Detroit of complications of the new coronavirus. He was 83. Douglas Nemanic via The New York Times.

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Before there was Google there was Federico Acerri. As an information specialist in the Michigan school system, where he worked for decades, he took on every imaginable query from staff members and students, culling dictionaries, microfilm and databases to find an answer. He was also a prolific artist, drawing under the name Mad Monk.

Acerri died April 12 at the Ascension St. John Hospital in Detroit of complications of the coronavirus, his sister, Mary Ann Tschiggfrey, said. He was 81.

Federico Urbano Acerri, who was known as Fred, was born on July 20, 1938, in Detroit. His father, Raniero, an Italian immigrant, worked for the city electric utility; his mother, Stella (Bonacci) Acerri, was a homemaker. Federico Acerri graduated from Nativity High School, where he was a star lineman on the football team.

After graduating from Wayne State University in the late 1950s, Acerri served in the Air Force and was stationed on Guam, where his duties included unloading containers of Agent Orange.

“I remember the FBI coming to talk to my parents,” Tschiggfrey said. “Fred typed up a lot of secret things back then.”

After obtaining a master’s degree in library sciences from Wayne State, Acerri began a career in research, at both the Wayne County Intermediate School District and Wayne State University. He was surrounded by books and documents in all forms, which he used to track down information that others had failed to find.

“People would could call with all kinds of crazy questions, like, ‘How long does it take baby chicks to hatch?’” Tschiggfrey said. “He was known as the answer man.”

When he retired in 2003 and moved several years ago to an assisted living facility, she added, there were 10,000 books to be dealt with.

When he wasn’t the answer man, he was known by his artistic alter ego Mad Monk, who made hundreds of rustic line drawings that were displayed at Wayne State, small galleries near Detroit and at Maxwell Studios in Baltimore. His photograph of Andy Warhol from the 1960s at a bookstore in Detroit is in the permanent collection of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.

“I think it was an evolutionary process that just grew a little at a time,” said his cousin, Doug Nemanic.

He gravitated toward cartoons and superheroes and figures from the Old West, jotting wherever he went, including in prayer books and on restaurants tablecloths.

“He felt the Mad Monk was able to say things that he couldn’t,” Nemanic said.

At the end, Tschiggfrey said the nurses at the hospital held the phone to Acerri as she read a list of names of friends and acquaintances.

“I wanted to make sure he knew we all loved him,” she said.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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