|Collecting memorabilia, stories therapy for former Union Citian |
|Posted: Thursday, October 18, 2012 9:14 pm |
| By JOHN GULLION |
Special to The Messenger
MORRISTOWN — Former Union Citian Jodie Hansen’s home is full of stories.
Currently those stories spill off the tables and onto chairs. They dominate the shelves in the living room and hang from the walls in the den. They blanket the piano and the kitchen table. Mostly, however, they neatly fill the nooks and crannies of Mrs. Hansen’s home the way gathering them has filled the nooks and crannies of her life.
“It’s my therapy,” she said.
A writer could spend a month transcribing the stories carefully laid out through Mrs. Hansen’s home and not scratch the surface. There’s the massive array of bells, carefully cultivated by Mrs. Hansen and her mother, that greet visitors in the foyer. There are antique books and ancient sailing knickknacks and old toys long forgotten by their original owners but rescued by Hansen and given a place of honor in the museum which is her home.
Many of these began as a relatively mundane accoutrement to someone else’s life. Whether a fleeting fanciful object or something of everyday use, they were just things. However, by merely surviving the passage of time and being carried by fate into Mrs. Hansen’s path, the objects have transformed. They are the personification of nostalgia.
It is as if Mrs. Hansen’s home is full of mini-time machines, each just waiting to take someone tripping down memory lane.
The story I have been asked to tell — the one out of the hundreds I could have chosen — is about Mrs. Hansen’s collection of political memorabilia. Mostly presidential in nature, the collection is spread through the better part of four rooms in her home, covering the few spots that aren’t normally blanketed in a neatly organized phalanx of the past.
The collection is gigantic — made up of another hundred stories — and at this point is just short of gaining a life of its own. It grows and changes without Mrs. Hansen’s direct input, many items donated by friends and family who know just how much Hansen would value an antique Nixon-Agnew button.
The collection isn’t normally on display. It can’t be. It belongs in a museum or in storage and cannot practically be contained by a single home.
She brought it out of storage and carefully laid it out to share with a few friends. Then as word began to spread about the collection, more people wanted to see it. Her Bridge club, for instance, and others interested in history and perhaps fascinated by the extent one woman would go to collect it.
There is a meticulous and careful nature at work, preserving items that have eluded the capture of more renowned collections in museums large and small throughout the world. But that isn’t to say the political collection is all about history with a capital “H.”
Items within the collection range from the original sheet music for President James Garfield’s funeral march to the modern cringe-inducing bumper stickers complete with semi-offensive attacks that seemingly gained in popularity toward the end of President Bill Clinton’s term.
Mrs. Hansen tells me again and again that she is not political. It is her way of saying the collection isn’t about ideology. She doesn’t wish to get caught up in the inflamed political passions of the day.
She is simply about the history. When presented with an object, she doesn’t weigh and measure it, deciding if it is worthy of joining her collection. It is simply welcomed and shuffled in with the political flotsam and jetsam of its day, a small part of a much larger mosaic.
Much like her many collections, Mrs. Hansen’s story comes in bits and pieces. Her collecting passion comes from her parents, who were themselves, collectors. She lived in Union City, built a home and family. She collected with her mother and father and when they no longer could, she continued the work they’d started.
For a five-year slice of the 1980s, Mrs. Hansen focused that passion on a particular subset of her political collection: The Kennedy letters.
While doing genealogy research with her mother on the family history, Mrs. Hansen found herself unfulfilled with cemetery records and dry, crinkly government documents of who begat whom or when Johnny married Sue.
What did her ancestors think? How did they feel? What was their reaction to the major news of their day? Did they mourn the deaths of presidents like Garfield or Lincoln?
The nugget of an idea was born. She would not leave her descendants — for that matter, our descendants — in such open want of information. She created a questionnaire and started a letter writing campaign. The basis of which is simple: Their memories of the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
She sent them out to the famous, the infamous and the unknown.
She has responses from George and Barbara Bush, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford and a relatively unknown Arkansas governor named Bill Clinton.
Still, she admits, the unknowns often offer the best stories but there was a practicality to pursuing the bigger game. The snowballing list of celebrity participants helped her gather more. She was not afraid to drop a name or two to further her goal.
“It was so unsophisticated,” she says. “I didn’t have any credentials. I’m not a writer … the more names I dropped and the more poetic sounding stuff I put in here, the better the stories got.”
She quickly became famous in Union City for her letters, particularly at the post office.
“I knew the postal clerks before, but honey, we were bosom buddies by the time it was over,” she says. “They’d say, ‘who’d we hear from today?’”
Many of the letter writers are dead now and she wonders if some of the excitement felt by her postal carriers will wane for future generations who don’t have much knowledge of people like Bob Hope or George Burns.
At one point, she confides that the one letter she feels whose writer will continue to inspire a sense of awe is Dr. Henry Heimlich, whose famous maneuver should continue to save lives long after the rest of us have joined the great band of Kennedys in the sky.
“Unless someone comes up with a better maneuver,” she says.
The simplest explanation — the one Mrs. Hansen uses over and over again in an attempt to capture the reason why — is that she wanted a true cross-section. That’s why she mailed sports figures and religious leaders and telephone switchboard operators working when the president was killed and the world was instantly demanding and sharing information as fast as they could get it.
“I’ve got Mennonites and all sorts of spiritual leaders like rabbis and priests and Billy Graham. I’ve got a good balance there,” she said. “And I thought, ‘well, I’ve got to have prisoners to get a good balance.’ So I’ve got Charles Manson and James Earl Ray and a couple others that were on death row.”
Some are achingly poetic. Al Hirt, a New Orleans trumpeter, shut down his club and spent the coming days mostly in the dark, blowing the blues. Or Iron Eyes Cody — the actor made famous as the “Crying Indian” in the Keep America Beautiful ads — who poetically told Mrs. Hansen he went up into the “big mountains” and prayed for the country and sang prayer songs for his friend John Kennedy.
Less poetically, the actor Walter Matthau joined a friend and drank three quarts of 100 proof vodka, adding “I don’t even drink.”
Like all of her collections, the letters are organized by category — although over the years changes must be made. When I jokingly told her it was time to move O.J. Simpson from the athletes to the criminals, she quite seriously replied, “I thought about that.”
The letters disprove the old chestnut that everyone remembers where they were when the president was killed. Revered science fiction author Isaac Asimov was among those to tell Hansen they had no memory of what they were doing, what they felt or thought.
Some — remembering old wounds — defended the South or Texas and not everyone treated the dead president’s legacy with kid gloves.
But the majority is respectful, some still drip with mourning for the lost president and all the promise he represented.
There is one story missing from the collection: Jodie Hansen’s.
“Uh-uh,” she said. “It’s not any good. I was just sitting on the couch feeding my little baby carrots or something like that. But I knew other people (had stories) … it was a dramatic moment.”
The majority of her letter gathering ended when she and her husband, a dentist, adopted a son and her priorities shifted somewhat. But the compulsion to collect never went away, and then when the medicine her husband took to control slight tremors began to take a deeper effect on his health, the collections helped her cope.
“My husband’s been sick for 20 years and it’s therapy for me. I love it,” she said. “I love to treasure hunt. I could go in the dirtiest place in the world and love it, if there’s treasures there.”
Now, with the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination coming next year, her daughter has been working with a publisher in New York to get the letters compiled into a book. There are some legal hurdles with permission to reprint the letters to be cleared, but she is hopeful she’ll be able to share her collection with the world.
Whether or not the Kennedy book is published, Hansen’s legacy continues. Her daughter in New York graduated from Columbia with a degree in historical preservation.
“She’s into environmental preservation, buildings and such,” she said. “She works with non-profit groups to preserve buildings.”
Historic preservation is the kind of work that really strikes a chord for Mrs. Hansen.
“She has a really interesting job,” she said.
Jodie Hansen and her husband, Dr. Fred Hansen, lived in Union City until he retired from dentistry in the mid-1990s. They have three daughters and sons-in-law, Dr. Rob and Lisa Ray, who live in Bean Station; Jim Stubbs and Laura Hansen, who live in Brooklyn; and Cliff and Poppy Beach, who live in Knoxville; and a son, Rick Hansen of Havre, Mont.
Editor’s note: John Gullion is the managing editor of The Morriston Citizen Tribune.
Published in The Messenger 10.18.12