Man collects artifacts of JFK and his murder

November 22, 1992|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Staff Writer

In his mind's eye, Bob White can still see the Household Name handing him a plain white cardboard box and saying in what he remembers as classic understatement, "These are really neat. I think you'll like them."

Carefully, Mr. White unfolded the tissue.

"I saw the colors, red, white and blue and that it was an American flag. But one looks just like another," he said. "Then I saw the other flag and my jaw dropped."

He had struck collector's gold: the gold-fringed silk American and presidential flags that streamed from the fenders of the convertible limousine as John F. Kennedy rode to his death in Dallas, Nov. 22, 1963.

"Those flags and Jackie's pink suit were the most visible things in the [Abraham] Zapruder film [of the assassination], the only spots of color," said the 44-year-old Baltimore County resident.

The 18- by 26-inch, hand-embroidered flags instantly became the centerpiece of one of the country's largest private collections of personal Kennedy memorabilia, which numbers more than 1,000 items.

The flags came from "a household name in the Kennedy White House," who has been the source of much of the collection, said Mr. White, who has two firm rules: He will neither identify his sources nor reveal how much he pays for things.

The collection includes JFK's gold christening ring, a hand blotter from the president's desk, one of the famous Kennedy rocking chairs, and notes the president jotted aboard Air Force One for the speech he never delivered in Dallas: "Equal choice . . . not any reflection . . . back . . . govt . . . reform. We are going forward."

Today is the 29th anniversary of President Kennedy's assassination. Mr. White wants to mark the 30th anniversary next year by sharing his collection, but he needs a secure public location and a private or corporate sponsor. He would like to display the materials in Baltimore, perhaps at the Peale Museum.

How does an ordinary person acquire items one might more likely encounter in a museum: Mr. Kennedy's wallet, two inscribed wristwatches, several eyeglasses, drivers license, passport, Senate identification cards?

Over the years, Mr. White has developed an extensive network of Kennedy friends because he has demonstrated discretion.

"The anonymity factor is essential," Mr. White said. "The people know I will buy the things and keep them out of it."

It started with 'Lassie'

The Catonsville native, who dropped out of the University of Maryland, joined the Army and served in Vietnam and South Korea, began collecting as a child watching "Lassie" on television. "I saw that Timmy [a "Lassie" character] wrote to President Eisenhower on the show and got an answer, so I wrote to the president, too, and I got a printed White House signature card," he said. "It was a fake but at least they answered."

He started collecting baseball players' autographs at Memorial Stadium and writing to stars such as Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, Stan Laurel, Geraldine Page and the Three Stooges.

"I would sit down and write to people, asking for pictures and autographs. Most people sent them," said Mr. White, who took up odd jobs to pay for the autographs. "For $12.50, I bought a document signed by U.S. Grant during the Civil War. Now it's worth many times that."

From autographs, he graduated to the personal items of famous people. He has the clothes John D. Rockefeller wore when he collapsed and died; some of the bloody hangings from Abraham Lincoln's death bed; Gen. Tom Thumb's gloves; locks of hair from Presidents Washington, Jackson and Lincoln, Gen. George "Yellow Hair" Custer, the Duke of Wellington, Susan B. Anthony, even a long blond tress from actress Mary Pickford.

Incredibly eclectic, the collection includes the worn leather wallet Abraham Lincoln used throughout the Civil War. It was discarded when he received a new one as a birthday present shortly before his murder.

"It's really neat, having the wallets of both Lincoln and Kennedy, both of them assassinated," Mr. White said.

Starting at age 12

His presidential autographs collection paved the way to th Kennedy collection. He was 12 years old when Kennedy became president. Like many people, he was fascinated by JFK and his glamorous wife.

"He was young, and I could identify with him," Mr. White said. "He was vibrant and charismatic, the last charismatic president we've had." Less than three years later, the loudspeaker in the Mount St. Joseph High School announced the assassination.

Mr. White began buying everything he could afford that was associated with the slain president: election buttons, posters, JTC cards and reproduction signatures. Still, a deep desire for something "personal" persisted. In 1967, he found it.

"I traded the whole set of presidential autographs for a book Kennedy owned," he said. "It was 'Money and Banking,' a textbook he used at Harvard. He had signed his name in it and annotated the text. I thought I was in heaven."

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