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Collector of Documents Plays Hail to the Chiefs : Optometrist Turns Presidential Hobby Into a Spectacle

February 16, 1987|DAVID LARSEN | Times Staff Writer

The second President, John Adams, proved he was a true American. He asked that he be allowed to make a purchase on a time-payment plan.

Adams wrote a horse dealer that he would buy "a pair of beautiful bays" for $600 if he could have one month to pay for them.

On this Presidents Day, memories of him as well as the other 38 are brought back. Particularly if you happen to be in the company of William R. Coleman of San Bernardino.

When one is with an optometrist, one should anticipate a spectacle, but this is something else. The place is a museum, bejeweled in paper with historically priceless original documents involving each of the nation's chief executives, documents collected by Coleman as a hobby over the last 35 years.

A Copy by Truman

"I shall not be a candidate for re-election," Harry S. Truman had scribbled at the end of a prepared speech he delivered at the 1952 Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner, a bombshell announcement he had disclosed beforehand to few people. The original is in Washington, but Truman later wrote a copy for his longtime friend Dave Morgan, and it is this one that Coleman has.

"I have served my country long and I think efficiently and honestly," Truman said. "I shall not accept a renomination. I do not feel that it is my duty to spend another four years in the White House."

The collection ranges from monumental announcements such as these to an example of a clever ploy used by the 26th President, Theodore Roosevelt. "It was his practice to have his secretary intentionally make a mistake in her typed letters," Coleman said. "He would then make a few changes in his own handwriting, thus giving it a personal touch."

For instance, in replying to a Maine man seeking appointment of his son to a military academy, Roosevelt scratched out "really" and substituted "exceedingly," and in place of "in your case," he wrote "that I am powerless to aid you."

The optometrist declined to discuss values when it comes to specific items in his collection, but it would be safe to say that near the top of the list would be a 2-inch-by-3-inch card written and signed by the 16th President, Abraham Lincoln.

"Lincoln sometimes dispensed favors by writing on such cards," Coleman said. "A person generally went to the White House and stood in line."

Such a favor-seeker on Feb. 17, 1865, apparently was Mrs. J. K. Dougherty of Clay County, Mo. Her husband, John Kerr Dougherty, had enlisted in the Confederate cause and was killed in battle.

His widow, Coleman said, apparently felt she needed something in writing to travel in a Union state to try to find her husband's body.

Not only did Lincoln pen his permission, but ended it with his wry sense of humor:

"Allow Mrs. J. K. Dougherty of Clay County, Missouri, to remain in New Jersey so long as she does not misbehave."

Also in the optometrist's collection is a bound recitation of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, signed in pencil by Lincoln, one of only 21 such signed volumes said to be in existence.

"My first acquisition was in 1952, when I visited an antique fair at the Pan Pacific Auditorium and went home with a military discharge paper signed by George Washington," said Coleman. "Ever since, I've been hooked."

Like any collector, be it of barbed wire or doorknobs, Coleman, 60, plays it close to his vest when it comes to disclosing the how and where. Two sources are auction houses and offerings by dealers in the quarterly journal of the Manuscript Society, of which he is president.

There was no necessity, however, to have to deal for one of his most prized items--it came directly from the current occupant of the White House.

White House Copies

"In 1824, the secretary of state authorized 200 parchment copies of the Declaration of Independence to be made, and the recipients included 'two copies for the President's house,' " Coleman said.

"Somewhere along the line, they were lost. When I acquired one of the parchment copies in 1984, I donated it to the White House, where it now hangs in the East Room."

And in the mail came a letter on White House stationery. Not only was that thank-you note written entirely in Ronald Reagan's hand, but the 40th President (he holds that number because Grover Cleveland served non-consecutive terms) took the trouble to also hand-write the envelope.

"Living in this historic old home one can't help but feel a sense of history and a reverence for our heritage," Reagan wrote.

Over the years, as the accumulation regarding Presidents has grown, some have been framed and displayed on the walls of the spacious house he shares with his wife, Monique, who has an interest of her own--documents of European queens and kings.

Kennedy Notations

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