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Relics Make American History : Memorabilia Collector Has Presidential Aspirations

December 20, 1985|WALT HARRINGTON | 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

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.

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.

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