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Making history come alive

Roger Simon with his political memorabilia.

Roger Simon’s first brush with politics was an electrifying experience. The professor of history was attending an outdoor rally for 1956 Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson in Camden, N.J., and the young boy and his family suddenly found themselves next to Stevenson’s motorcade after police parted the crowd.

“He was touching hands with the people as his car went by,” Simon recalls. “I was right there and his hand touched mine. It was so exciting.”

Simon’s interest in politics only grew as he got older and embraced his love of history through his academic career. And as it grew, so did his collection of political memorabilia, which now fills two display cases in Lehigh’s Linderman Library.

The exhibit, which will run through the month of November, is only a portion of Simon’s complete collection and includes buttons, press passes, bumper stickers, posters and campaign hats that date back as far as 1896. “Buttoning Up the Elections” chronicles presidential races of the last century and reflects both the issues and passions of the era that produced them, Simon says.

Reflecting the times

In Simon’s collection, there are buttons protesting a third term for FDR, buttons proclaiming Richard Nixon’s guilt in the Watergate scandal, and buttons promising peaceful tomorrows from 1968 presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy.

There are also a beribboned medal press pass from a convention in the 1950s, a yellowed JFK campaign hat from the 1960 Democratic convention, and campaign materials from Teddy Roosevelt’s race in 1904.

More recent materials include campaign pieces promoting the Kerry/Edwards and Bush/Cheney tickets, and a number of posters and other materials from the Clinton/Gore campaigns that defeated George H.W. Bush in 1992 and Kansas Senator Robert Dole in 1996.

“Artifacts make history real,” says Simon in explaining his passion. “I’m not a really serious collector of anything, but I’ve always been fascinated with things that reflect the times that produced them.”

To that end, Simon says his basement at home contains cartons filled with items as obscure as a 1947 waffle iron, a 1960 bonnet hair dryer, and a series of small kitchen appliances from the 1950s.

Value lies in appreciation

Occasionally, these antiques make their way into his classroom, where he demonstrates the odd-looking items to his students.

“You have to remember that a freshman student at Lehigh was born when Reagan was president, and probably doesn’t remember any election prior to 1996,” he says. “They think history started the day before yesterday, so they’re often fascinated with this stuff.”

Over the past few decades, students who know of Simon’s interest in political memorabilia have also been a prolific source for it.

Other sources include curio shops, festivals and antique sales.

“They used to be a lot less expensive than they are now,” says Simon.

He hesitates to declare his collection’s worth, but does note that its value lies in the appreciation of it.

“Collections like this bring the past into the present,” he says. “They make history come alive.”

--Linda Harbrecht

Posted on Thursday, September 30, 2004

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