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Relics Make American History : Memorabilia Collector Has Presidential Aspirations

The Washington Post

They will call it the Amyx Collection someday. That is what Raleigh DeGeer Amyx--collector, salesman and seeker of a niche in history--hopes, anyway.

They will pass quietly from showcase to showcase, pausing at John F. Kennedy’s eyeglasses, their stems slightly chewed at the tips. They will step to the framed display of John John’s monogrammed silk baby shorts. They will strain to see the golf shoe cleat marks in the piece of tile from Ike’s Oval Office. They will shake their heads at President Warren G. Harding’s Prohibition shot glass and stare at F.D.R.'s Navy cape. They will smile at the gray fedora that Eleanor asked a valet to remove from Franklin’s bedroom.

They’ll see F.D.R.'s Fala dog miniatures, Harry S. Truman’s poker chips and a flag that flew half-staff over the White House after Kennedy’s assassination. When enough time has passed, they will even find a piece of bloodstained leather from the limousine in Dallas.

Presidential Memorabilia

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Perhaps some of the 401 items in Amyx’s collection of presidential memorabilia are trivial--an itinerary from the 1939 visit of Great Britain’s King George VI to the White House, a cigarette case that F.D.R. held in his hand for only an instant. But the stories that Amyx has collected from the 25 maids and butlers, secretaries and Secret Service men who contributed to what he calls his “backstairs museum” imbue the ordinary with an intimate majesty. John John’s monogrammed shorts are an American relic, and the Amyx Collection is to politics what a splinter from the true cross is to faith.

Raleigh Amyx discovered that he had throat cancer in 1979. The odds were only 1 in 3 that the 40-year-old Northern Virginian would live--and if he did it was almost certain his speech would be impaired or that he would lose his voice entirely. In one year his weight fell from 195 to 153--but he lived and he kept his voice.

“There has to be more to life,” he decided. “My job was just so dull.”

Amyx always had been a bit eccentric--a boy who read The Book of Knowledge (starting at Z and working forward to A) for fun. He had kept his own museum as a child, displaying a dead bat, a piece of wood supposedly from Lincoln’s Kentucky home, a Nazi helmet with bullet hole. Admission was 2 cents.

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Amyx grew up to be a salesman of self-improvement courses and life insurance, a weekend antique hunter, a self-taught handwriting expert and an amateur student of American history. When he learned he had throat cancer, for instance, Amyx immediately recalled that Babe Ruth and President Ulysses S. Grant had died of throat cancer.

After Amyx beat the disease, he quit his association director’s job with the vague idea of once again creating a museum, filled with baseball or astronaut or presidential memorabilia. When Amyx saw the TV miniseries “Backstairs at the White House,” based on Lillian Rogers Parks’ book about her 30 years as a White House housekeeper, it struck him that legions of backstairs White House workers must live in Washington.

“It gave me the idea that these were the people to know,” says Amyx, who quickly settled on Presidents as his passion. “Forget the Kissingers, the Haldemans, the Jody Powells. They aren’t going to help.” Amyx made a deal with his wife, a congressional aide--her income would support the family and his trade in presidential signatures would support the collection.

He began with classified ads: “Presidential Items Wanted.”

Soon, a man driving a long car and wearing gold chains arrived with what he claimed was an F.D.R. cane and a small wooden box inscribed with Roosevelt’s name. Amyx paid $450 on intuition--and a plan. He framed and mounted the cane on velvet, and made an appointment with Lillian Rogers Parks, ostensibly to see if she recognized the items but also as his introduction to the backstairs world.

Parks believed the items genuine and discovered from friends that the cane and box came from one of F.D.R.'s closest White House servants. The servant had given them to a woman friend, who had kept them for decades. After she died, a family member asked the man with the gold chains to answer Amyx’s ad.

From there, it was like pulling a thread. Parks and Amyx became close friends. She contributed F.D.R.'s Fala dog miniatures and Herbert Hoover’s cigar humidor. She also introduced Amyx to other retired White House workers. From the widow of a White House electrician for 40 years came about 25 items, including golf balls chipped on the White House lawn by Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Nixon. From the widow of Roosevelt’s valet, Arthur Prettyman, came F.D.R.'s ivory-handled cane from World War II and 14 miniature animals sewn to a satin ribbon that hung from F.D.R.'s White House bed. From the widow of Isaac Esperancilla, a Roosevelt valet and later chief of the Truman presidential yacht, the Williamsburg, came F.D.R.'s gray fedora. From a retired White House maid came John John’s shorts.

It went on and on. Though Amyx has paid as much as $400 for a single item, most were donated or given in return for small church or charity contributions. In four years, Amyx’s suburban home became a museum--with a state-of-the-art security system, glass display cases and ultraviolet lights.

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‘Now It’s History’

“You don’t know who to leave all this stuff to. . . ,” says a retired Secret Service man who worked for every President from Roosevelt to Nixon, and who contributed to Amyx’s collection. “You’d be out on a walk with (the President) and he’d say, ‘Here’s a little something for you.’ . . . We took it for granted in those days. It was just work. Now it’s history.”

Floyd Boring had been one of two Secret Service men who carried a travel “kit” for J.F.K.--cash, four or five cigars, Kennedy’s reading glasses. The men took turns traveling with the President, and Boring was in Washington when Kennedy was killed in Dallas. He tucked J.F.K.'s glasses in his desk drawer at home, and that is where they stayed for 20 years--until Raleigh Amyx came by.

“He went bananas over these glasses,” Boring recalls. “It was a shock to me.”

Amyx’s excitement isn’t rare, however. After Abraham Lincoln died in a house across the street from Ford’s Theater, memorabilia hunters stripped pieces of wallpaper from the walls. After Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at the courthouse in Appomattox, Union officers bought the tables and chairs. People once dipped their robes in the blood of martyrs.

When Amyx touched John Kennedy’s glasses, he could envision Floyd Boring handing them to the President, Kennedy’s hands reaching for them. He could see Kennedy sitting over a book, his flat-topped reading glasses resting on the bridge of his nose, Kennedy sliding them up occasionally, glancing over them when he looked away. And because the stems were chewed, Amyx could see John Kennedy, as he pondered an idea, remove the amber horn rims, and bite absently on their tips.

“He had beautiful teeth,” Amyx says.

Crucial to any relic, of course is its lineage. As Evelyn Waugh once wrote, “It used to be believed by the vulgar that there were enough pieces of this ‘true cross’ to build a battleship.” Tucked in Amyx’s safe, he says, are signed letters from his contributors authenticating his items.

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“When Lillian Rogers Parks says it’s from Roosevelt’s desk,” Amyx said, “it’s from Roosevelt’s desk.” A half-dozen contributors--including two retired White House Secret Service men--confirmed that the items they gave Amyx are genuine.

“I want this collection to be so clean,” Amyx says, “that 100 years from now they will say, ‘That guy was ready! He did a good job.’ ” Amyx hopes his collection will end up in a presidential museum in, say, Alexandria or Washington. “Someday it will just happen,” he says.

Amyx’s collection includes an original surveying map and document tinted and written by the hand of 17-year-old George Washington and manuscripts signed by all 39 Presidents. But it is the trivial items--and the stories behind them--that thrill Amyx most.

Roosevelt had hundreds of walking canes, for example. But when Amyx found a rare photo of F.D.R. with an ivory-handled cane, he noticed it had a rubber tip. Amyx went to his own ivory-handled F.D.R. cane: When he saw the cane’s discolored end, where its rubber tip once had been, Amyx cried. F.D.R. also had a closet full of hats. But Amyx’s F.D.R. fedora is one that Eleanor Roosevelt personally asked valet Author Prettyman to remove from the President’s room. The President looked ridiculous in it, she told Prettyman, who took the hat home.

From these stories, Raleigh Amyx gets a certain feeling. When he got home alone with J.F.K.'s glasses, for instance, Amyx held them and cried. Then, while listening for anyone who might walk into the room unexpectedly, he put them on his head and wondered what John Kennedy would think.


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