Antiquarians pick Lapides to lead them

Role may be a first for a Marylander

November 15, 2003|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

After a lifetime as a lawyer and 32 years as a Maryland legislator, Julian L. Lapides has finally gotten a really good job.

Lapides, who served seven terms in the Maryland Senate and four years in the House of Delegates, has just been elected chairman of the board of councilors of the American Antiquarian Society for the coming year.

The 72-year-old seems perfectly qualified for this post. He's, well, a bit antiquarian himself. Lapides is a man of old-fashioned rectitude, a certain gracious courtliness and an easy wit. His peers in state government called him "the conscience of the Senate."

The American Antiquarian Society, founded in Worcester, Mass., in 1812, by Isaiah Thomas, a printer, patriot, historian and book collector, is one of those august New England institutions of which few are more hallowed. The learned society's collections of printed materials are probably second to none in documents of American history from 1640 through 1876. They include about two-thirds of everything printed in America through 1820, including an Algonquin Bible, the papers of Abigail Adams and those Puritan stalwarts Increase and Cotton Mather, and about 2 million copies of newspapers.

The society is not quite as old as the Library of Congress, which dates from 1800, but its collections may be older. The British Army burned down the Library of Congress with the Capitol in 1814. Its collections were only refreshed when Congress bought Thomas Jefferson's library of 6,487 books in 1815.

Isaiah Thomas, even though he had been a Minuteman and accompanied Paul Revere on his famous ride, thought the British were going to win that war.

"Isaiah Thomas," Lapides says, "thought that the American experience was going to be lost. He went around to every bookstore in New England and bought one of every single item, contemporaneous at the time, every book, every broadside, every newspaper, everything. That formed the basis of the collection. Our cut-off period basically is 1876. We don't want anything after 1876."

Lapides says he is "pretty sure" he's the first Marylander to be chairman. His predecessors in that role include Calvin Coolidge and the historian Samuel Eliot Morison. The society is exclusive, limiting membership to 800 nationwide. Members include Ken Burns, the television documentarian; Walter Cronkite, the avuncular anchorman; David McCullough, the biographer of John Adams and others; Ruth Dumaine Brooking, a direct descendant of Isaiah Thomas; and Ed Snider, owner of the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team, who collects Americana. Richard M. Nixon was said to have been blackballed.

Lapides and his wife, Linda, have both been members since the early 1980s. "One of the few husband-and-wife teams," he says. He was elected after he helped the society acquire a collection of artifacts from McLoughlin Brothers, the New York publishers of children's books and games. The Lapideses, incidentally, have a large and fine collection of early children's books. Linda Lapides was elected to the society a few years after her husband.

"Our family joke is they realized they elected the wrong Lapides," he says.

He says he was hanging out with some friends from the Senate recently, Jim Clark, Charles Smelser and Oden Bowie, whose grandfather was governor of Maryland.

"Even though we weren't always alike in our legislation," he says, "I have great affinity for people like that, [people] with integrity and an interest in the past and an interest in culture.

"I think preserving our past really makes us appreciate the future, or even justifies the future. Unless you understand your past, you can't have an impact on the future. It's corny, but I really think we have a duty to give back to society."

Lapides is also on the boards of the Lyric Foundation, the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival, Baltimore Heritage and the Preservation Society of Baltimore, all of which have a certain antiquarian cast. He also is president of the Mount Royal Democratic Club, his political base. His law practice these days consists mainly of wills, estates and trusts.

"I enjoy all these things," he says. "I can't wait until the next day of my life."

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