Honoring the collector

Every wall of my parents’ garage once was lined with carefully labeled apple boxes containing a lifetime of collections: newspapers from nearly every historical event for the past half century, license plates, baseball cards and more.

One box promised especially tempting items: “extra neat stuff.” Another was filled with pine cones gathered from years of hiking in the Rocky Mountains.

The boxes were stacked in tidy rows from floor to ceiling. No space was wasted. On one wall, a box in the middle was marked, “fuse box behind here.” The labels were in my father’s distinct, all-uppercase writing and made with an “El Marko” felt tip pen, his go-to writing implement.

When I was growing up in a small northern Colorado town, a trip to the local Safeway store was an opportunity to add to the apple box collection. There is no better box, my father swore.

The compulsion seems to be hereditary. My brother continues to be an avid apple box saver.

But the collections were not forever cloistered in their cardboard homes. Occasionally my father would take out a set just to look at it. I remember the entire series of Newsweek magazines from the Watergate scandal spread across the living room floor. I was too young to understand Watergate at the time, but I knew it must be important — it had its own apple box.

Despite their sturdy nature, a few boxes sustained damage over the years. One of my parents’ cats, Kitty, had a taste for cardboard and munched through every box she could reach.

Beyond the boxes were unusual objects displayed throughout the house. My father once saved an orange for months because he said it looked like Charles Barkley. (It kind of did.)

When my father died a few years ago, simply discarding his treasures was not an option.

I started with the newspapers — dozens of boxes of newspapers. I contacted staff at The Newseum, the museum of news in Washington, D.C. An archivist told me they might be interested in some of them. I should send an inventory for their review. Each time I went home to visit my mother, I logged four or five boxes into a spreadsheet and sent the list to the Newseum. Staff would mark the ones they wanted and return it to me.

On the next visit, I would send the ones they wanted and inventory more boxes. The museum did not take papers it already had in its collection or those covering events they did not consider significant. While the papers from the annual Loveland valentine program were significant back home, they didn’t meet the bar of national news. It took me more than two years, but eventually I made it through most of them. In the end, I did have to recycle some papers. I apologized to my dad each time I tossed some into the blue plastic barrel.

Two years after my father’s death, my mother died unexpectedly.

She had never wanted to downsize: “What would we do with all the stuff?”

My brother and I were forced to deal with the rest of the collections.

The frog collection went to a fellow batrachophile in New York. I’m still looking for an ovinophile for his flock of sheep-shaped items.

My father was an active member of the local Lions Club for many years. He was a top seller of light bulbs, which he pushed on people throughout town. The items he gathered during that time –Lions Club pins, banners and news articles — went to the archivist at the local club.

Then, there were the license plates — hundreds of them. I wanted to make sure that at least some of his plates ended up with a collector as fanatical about them as my father. I found several copies of the Mountain Outline, the newsletter of the Colorado license plate collectors club in my father’s office. I contacted members who purchased most of his collection. One collector snagged the crown jewel: a set of Colorado plates going back to 1913.

“License plate collectors are an obsessive bunch,” one of them said, elbowing me as if he was letting me in on a secret.

My father had some more typical collections: coins, stamps and comic books. Some of them he inherited from my maternal grandmother with whom he shared a kindred collector’s spirit and an occasional beer.

One might think all of these collections would result in a house filled with piles. Not so in our home. Everything was in neat displays: bolo ties, insurance company signs and cereal boxes with celebrity photos on them. He had individual items he considered rare gems: a cattle salt lick, a chunk of the Berlin Wall and a Brannock Device (for those evenings at home when you need to check your shoe size).

My dad, known to most for his sense of humor, was well aware of how obsessed he was. But that did not deter him. My college friends once sent him an article about people who collect things.

He responded: “I appreciate the article you sent. It helps with my new collection of articles about people who collect things.”

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