Ultimate autograph kid shared his cool stuff and enthusiasm

April 29, 2004|By DAN RODRICKS

FORTY YEARS AGO - man, it hurts to admit that! - I wrote to one of the original seven American astronauts (not John Glenn but Wally Schirra, don't ask me why) to ask for his autograph. A few weeks later, I received in the mail an autographed photo of Wally Schirra in his space suit. I tacked it to the wall of my bedroom, and it stayed there for years, through high school. Of course, it's long gone.

Years later, I saw Wally Schirra at the boat show in the Baltimore Convention Center. He wore a blazer with a patch for Realty World. I told him he was one of my heroes. He said I should have come and "joined us in space." I think he was being nice.

I wanted to ask Wally Schirra for a new autograph but reporters are not supposed to do that (and I didn't really want an autographed picture of one of the original astronauts in a Realty World blazer).

When I told Rob White this story at his mother's home in Catonsville, White, the ultimate autograph kid, thought I was crazy.

"You didn't ask him for an autograph?" he said, incredulous that I'd let the opportunity pass.

Rob White never let an opportunity pass.

He had chutzpah and he loved celebrity of any kind. He wanted to touch history and fame. Some people find autograph hounds weird and, if you've ever seen some of the "adults" lined up for signatures at a baseball stadium or film opening, you know what I mean. But White was in a different class when it came to all this. He was a connoisseur of cool things who became, in time, one of the country's most successful collectors of autographs and other artifacts.

Some famous people, or their associates or heirs, sold or gave him things because they liked and trusted him. That's certainly why Rob's collection of John F. Kennedy memorabilia grew to become one of the largest and most significant private collections of the late president's effects in the world. (Rob was so good at collecting JFK items that it led to a nasty - and, for Rob, hurtful - dispute with the Kennedy children in 1998 and to claims that some of the items were so historically significant they belonged in the presidential library.)

Let me say a word about enthusiasm.

Rob White had such enthusiasm - energy, spirit, downright joy - for his collecting, and for what things meant, that it's hard to imagine that he's gone. He died suddenly in October at 54 and, while I was tempted to write a remembrance of him then, I found the subject too sad to approach. He was a special person, vigorous and interesting and engaging, and he loved to share his cool stuff with people.

"He was a tactile historian," says his old friend, Allan Stypeck, owner of Second Story Books in the Washington suburbs (and formerly Greenmount Avenue in Baltimore). "He loved exposing people to his collections and having them actually touch things."

In White's Catonsville basement, I touched a wallet that once belonged to Abraham Lincoln, a cigar holder once owned by JFK, a dinner plate from the Hindenburg and the Oscar won by the cinematographer of Wuthering Heights. Rob had one of the costumes worn by the wicked witch's guards - "Or-ee-o, yo-ho"- in The Wizard of Oz. He owned a piece of the blood-stained towel that had been wrapped around Lincoln's head after he was shot in April 1865. He had a Babe Ruth bat, a cane used by Franklin Roosevelt and the golfing clothes that John D. Rockefeller had been wearing when he died in 1937.

Now White's life work - not the Kennedy part of it, but the rest of it - goes on the block next month, an estate auction being handled jointly by Second Story Books and Hantman's Auctioneers and Appraisers in Montgomery County.

About 400 lots are in this first auction, which Stypeck calls "the tip of an exceptional iceberg of material."

They will auction off items associated with Clara Barton and a large collection of 19th-century hotel registers with historic signatures, uniforms and artifacts from World War II, a collection of American flags, and even a dessert plate from the White Star Line saved by a survivor of the Titanic. There's a good bit of American political artifacts, too. White, said Stypeck, "was one of the finest authorities in the country on political memorabilia."

There are several things Catholic being auctioned off, including items connected to Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore.

As I write along here, and tell you about it, I become increasingly sad. It's that enthusiasm - Rob's passion for collecting cool things and telling the stories behind them - that I miss.

White worked hard and made some nice dough from his items - especially through the controversy-singed auction of JFK material - and that's why he probably thought I was a fool to miss Wally Schirra's autograph when I had the chance. (Yesterday, I clicked through the Internet and found this: "SCHIRRA, Wally - Autograph on 8x10 BW photo in Mercury spacesuit by model of the Mercury spacecraft. $79." )

But nothing brought him more pleasure than showing stuff to visitors - and he was willing to take his show to schools and nursing homes - and wowing them with, say, a fountain pen JFK had used, or a top hat McKinley had worn. I wish the ultimate autograph kid had lived to open his own museum.

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