Picking and choosing bits of history

While a lot of the stuff taking up room in D.C.-area basements and attics holds bits of history about our region, some prominent residents have collections wholly unrelated to Washington.

In a recent conversation, Ted Leonsis told me about how much he was moved by the 1980 Winter Olympic games and the scrappy hockey team of amateur Americans who beat the Russian powerhouse that had dominated the Olympics since 1954.

“They called it ‘Miracle on Ice’ — that stayed with me in a big, big way,” he said, with what sounded like a bit of awe in his voice. “It was called the greatest upset in the history of sports.”

He began to collect memorabilia associated with those Olympians. “I have a team-autographed jersey; I have a photo of the team signed by all the players. I have the stick signed by the captain of the team,” he says.

Oh, and he bought a hockey team. The Washington Capitals, in 1999. And the Washington Wizards and Mystics, more recently.

Another cool collector: Veteran newsman Jim Lehrer, who has a bus load of mementos. Literally. The former PBS “NewsHour” anchor-turned-novelist-turned-playwright has amassed a room full of bus memorabilia in his Cleveland Park home.

In what’s affectionately known as the “Bus Room,” he has “a couple of hundred old bus signs” hanging from every inch of just about every wall — “the old, heavy, metal signs that used to hang outside of service stations in small towns,” he describes with pride.

And cap badges. The man has plenty of cap badges — “the ornamental badges that the drivers used to wear,” he says lovingly. “Three or four hundred.” He also has antique toy buses: “cast irons mostly, of all sizes and varieties.”

His basement is organized and methodical. “Every place I turn, there’s a bus! It’s a part of my life,” he says.

When Lehrer was a little boy, his father briefly owned a bus line called the Kansas Central Lines. “It only lasted for about a year,” he says, “but my older brother and I have always had this joke that we bleed diesel fuel, not blood, like everybody else. We’re bus people. That’s who we are.”

Indeed, it’s the pieces of our past we preserve that help to define us, as individuals and as a society.

“If you want to go back and ask, ‘What were people wearing? What were they looking at? How were they traveling back in those days?’ Well, ‘those days’ can be two weeks ago, two years ago, two hundred years ago. If you really want to find out, at the personal level, how people lived and what they did, you have to go back to the pack rats’ collections,” Lehrer says.

What truth, I think as he speaks. What insight. And as one of those self-proclaimed pack rats — what a relief!

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