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Collector's Christmas Wish: A Permanent Home for 236 Nativity Scenes

December 20, 1992|SUSAN PATERNO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

WHITTIER — Every time Calvin Tooker tries to find a home for his collection of Nativity scenes, he gets the same response: "No room at the inn."

Tooker has amassed 236 Nativity scenes from around the world in the past 18 years. He has so many tributes to the birth of the Christ child that he no longer has space, time or money to keep them.

Several months ago, he tried to find a suitable place to donate his pieces. Each church, college, museum and historical society he has approached has turned him--and his $10,000 collection--down. "Mostly they say (the collection) is too big or they don't have room," he said.

Tooker is taking the rejections hard. At 68, the retired Whittier librarian has growing health problems, a small apartment and limited resources. "If I live long enough, I may put (the collection) in the middle of the street and rent a steamroller," the usually gregarious and optimistic Tooker said in a moment of sadness. "I'm very discouraged. When I started collecting, I had no idea I'd encounter these problems."

The collection includes as large a variety of materials and interpretations of Jesus, Mary and Joseph as there are cultures in the world. Tooker has one made from bread dough in Ecuador, another made from straw in Mexico, Lladro porcelain from Spain, carved wood from Nigeria and the Philippines and fiber dolls from Zimbabwe. He has thimbles, wall hangings, plates and wood prints decorated with Nativity scenes; his smallest piece comes from Chile--the birth of Jesus in a Chiclets box.

Tooker keeps six cabinets full of pieces in his apartment. The rest sit in a closet, wrapped and stored, waiting for display somewhere else. Though collectors abound in the United States--for everything from porcelain Scotch terriers to Teddy bears--Tooker has yet to meet another Nativity scene aficionado. "I even wrote to a collecting magazine," Tooker said. "But they'd never heard of any."

Though Tooker does not consider himself religious, he said he began collecting the pieces because he saw in them a spiritual meaning. "I see the indefinable part of the human psyche and soul through each of the artists as they seek a connection with the creator of the universe."

His father was an ordained minister in the Church of the Brethren, a denomination similar to Quakers and Mennonites, but made his living as a farmer in South Dakota. "I had a lot of problems in my life with this sort of fundamentalist religion," he said. He came to Southern California to attend the University of La Verne, a Christian college near Pomona, and later "dipped into various other forms of religion," he said.

Tooker describes himself as more "open-minded and liberal" than most of his family. With no children and four siblings older than he, he has no hope of keeping the collection in the family, although his relatives have been happy with his hobby. "They've done their damnedest to keep me from straying," he said.

Despite forays into other spiritual corners, Tooker said Christianity remains ingrained in him. And that might, he said, account for his fascination with Nativity scenes.

"Isn't it incredible that the birth of one person can have this effect on people throughout the world? Though I'm not particularly religious, I am trying to find out the meaning of life, who or what the maker and creator are. I don't feel Christianity is better than any other way, it just speaks to me."

As much as Tooker would like to keep, add to and permanently display his collection, he realizes his dream is unrealistic. "I can't afford to add any more," he said. "I'd need to get into porcelains and they cost anywhere from $150 to $300 a whack."

Tooker, who worked as a librarian for Metropolitan State Hospital in Norwalk before retiring, has one Christmas wish this year: "I'd like to see my collection in a church or a museum or my alma mater," he said. "That would make me very, very happy."

Those who wish to help Tooker find a home for his collection may call him at (310) 944-4124.

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Lenna Oliver celebrated her 100th birthday on Friday at Berryman Health East Convalescent Hospital in Whittier. Family members from across the country came to the hospital on Saturday for a party.

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The Junior Auxiliary of the Assistance League of Long Beach named Clara Cook Andrews its 1992 Woman of the Year. Honored for her extensive service to the community, Cook has been involved in volunteer work since 1951, a few years after moving to Long Beach from Mississippi. She has opened volunteer offices in various cities throughout Southern California, administered the Long Beach Children's Dental Health Clinic, worked for schools, shelters, anti-poverty organizations and a host of other causes.

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