Collector leaves valuable memories

WAY BACK WHEN

Bob White shared history with hobby

October 18, 2003|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

I was not prepared for what awaited me when I first visited Bob White's collection on a rainy autumn night about 15 years ago.

White, whose collection of John F. Kennedy memorabilia was simply world-class, died last Saturday. He was 54.

A colleague, Charles "Hap" Hazard, a former Sun artist, had talked about White and his various collections for years with an enthusiasm that bordered on hyperbole.

On the drive out to White's mother's home in Catonsville, where part of the collection was on display, I thought it would be a quick trip.

I was wrong. My visited ended four hours later as the hands of the clock were touching midnight.

Here, in the basement of a simple Cape Cod on a tree-lined suburban side street, was a collection so incredible and personal that when you tried to tell others what you had experienced, they didn't believe it.

Descending the basement stairs, one's attention was drawn instantly to White's framed collection of locks of presidential hair from George Washington to Ronald Reagan, who was then president.

Down below, in locked display cases, rested artifacts relating to JFK and his brother, Robert F. Kennedy.

A Kennedy rocker, looking as though the president had just gotten up from it, was sitting in the center of the room. There were framed autographs and pictures on the wall. Hollywood costumes from Batman and The Wizard of Oz were on mannequins.

Every nook and cranny held something spectacular. And as you moved about the room, the intensity of the collection - most were one-of-a-kind items - was overwhelming.

There was a cobalt blue-and-cream-colored dinner plate that survived the crash of the Hindenburg, a signed Babe Ruth baseball bat, JFK's comb, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's cigar holder, and a cane once used by Franklin D. Roosevelt. There was much, much more.

White always relished gauging the reactions of first-time visitors and loved telling stories about how and where he obtained items.

"Remember, not all of the Kennedys are wealthy," I remember his telling us that evening. "They have come to me to sell items, and the only thing they asked was that I protect their identity."

White's collecting began modestly in his youth when he found the telephone number for Stan Laurel, of the legendary film comedy team of Laurel & Hardy, who was then living a quiet retirement in Southern California.

White's parents, who were supportive of his hobby, allowed him to make one long-distance call a month to the star who had sent him a letter and an autograph. It was the beginning of a friendship that lasted until Laurel's death in 1965.

White also began writing to Cabinet secretaries, ambassadors and political figures.

On Jan. 29, 1963, a letter arrived from the White House.

"Dear Bobby," wrote Evelyn Lincoln, JFK's personal secretary, "Thank you for your postal card to the president. In response to your request, I am glad to send you one of his photographs together with an autographed White House card."

It was the beginning of a 32-year friendship with Lincoln, who lived in Chevy Chase until her death in 1995. White was also listed as a legatee of her estate.

White was in a study hall at Mount St. Joseph High on Nov. 22, 1963, when he heard that JFK had been shot and killed in Dallas.

"I remember riding home on the No. 8 bus to Catonsville, and everybody was talking about it. I made reel-to-reel sound recordings of all the news coverage, and I was actually taping when Oswald was shot. And that Sunday, my father, my mother, sister and I went down to Washington for the funeral. We stood on Pennsylvania Avenue and watched the caisson go by," he told The Evening Sun in 1988.

White eventually came to own the uniform worn by the Dallas police officer who arrested accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald in a movie theater. The officer, Nick McDonald, sold the uniform to White after he retired.

In recent years, White expanded his collecting horizons to include old hotel registers and items related to the World War II Battle of Iwo Jima.

"Bob had a fantastic interest in tangible things historic," said Courtney B. Wilson, executive director of Baltimore's B&O Museum. "He reached out for documents, autographs and things that were important to America. These were the things that touched his heart."

Wilson, a friend of White's since the early 1970s, described him as a "very gentle and respectful guy who was well-liked by the collecting community.

"He was also intensely interested in three-dimensional objects that were associated with American history - those things that were not typical and perhaps a little bit left of center. He liked items that people had put their hands on," Wilson said.

"He got a doorknob for me that had come from Andrew Jackson's home and it's a thrill for me to think, like Bob, that [Jackson] used it daily," he said.

Unlike some collectors, Wilson said, White was always happy to share his knowledge. "There are many examples from the field of collecting that hold their knowledge close to their vests, Bob wasn't one of them," Wilson said.

When White learned that students at Sacred Heart Parochial School in Glyndon were staging The Wizard of Oz, he took his original costumes to the school for display during its run.

"And there was Bob in the lobby with the Winky costumes, surrounded by happy children, their parents and grandparents posing for photographs," Hazard said. "That's the kind of guy he was. He loved making other people happy with his collection."

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