By Ruth McCann
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 13, 2009
In 2004, nuclear-physicist-cum-billionaire Peter Buck, 77, purchased one of the world's most fabulous rubies for an undisclosed sum and donated it to the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in memory of Carmen Lúcia Buck, his late wife.
Buck described the acquisition process, which began with Carmen's longtime jeweler, Frank Cappiello, whom Buck has known for the past quarter-century:
"To paraphrase, what Frank originally said was: 'Hey Pete! Got this great idea. What you do is, spend a lot of money and buy this ruby, and immediately give it away!' "
And Buck did just that.
Same deal with the 224-year-old George Washington letter that Buck recently donated to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, which announced the acquisition on July 16 and plans to display it early next year.
Again, it was Cappiello (who has expanded his purview to include rare manuscripts) who brought the letter to Buck's attention, suggesting that the Smithsonian might be eager to clutch the historic missive to its stately bosom.
According to Smithsonian curator Harry Rubenstein, Washington himself had kept a copy of the letter in question, from which the recently unearthed original varies slightly. It provides stronger proof of Washington's conviction that the states ought to, as Washington writes, "Act as a Nation" -- valuable sentiments indeed, given that Washington aired them two years prior to the Constitutional Convention. The letter continues: "If we are afraid to trust one another under qualified powers there is an end to the Union."
Buck offered to purchase the letter for the Smithsonian, saying that if they didn't want the letter, they could have the money anyway. But they did want the letter, and Buck coughed up a cool quarter-million for the document's purchase and care. Although for Buck, perhaps the cash wasn't so much coughed up as it was gently exhaled.
A longtime resident of Danbury, Conn., Buck ponied up $1,000 in 1965 to open the first Subway sandwich shop with friend Fred DeLuca. At the time, Buck was working for General Electric, designing nuclear reactors. Since then, Subway has exploded into a worldwide franchise (yes, you can get a Veggie Delite in Afghanistan), and Buck and DeLuca regularly appear on Forbes's roster of fabulously wealthy persons. In March, the magazine estimated Buck's worth at $1.6 billion.
The Smithsonian-Buck relationship, now five years old and going strong, was originally orchestrated by Cappiello. When Smithsonian curator Jeff Post met Cappiello at a jewelry function in 2002, he mentioned that the Smithsonian was desirous of acquiring the ruby, Cappiello says. So when Buck and Cappiello, two years later, discussed purchasing the stone in Carmen's memory, Cappiello knew exactly where it would find a welcoming home.
After Buck donated the gem, now dubbed the Carmen Lúcia Ruby, Natural History Museum Director Cristián Samper invited Buck to join the museum's board. And the relationship continues, as so many long-distance affairs do, with the help of gifts and visits -- Buck travels to D.C. twice yearly to attend board meetings and take a peek at the galleries.
One of his first stops, of course, is always the Minerals and Gem Gallery, where the Carmen Lúcia Ruby -- a gleaming Burmese stone the size of a large throat lozenge, set with two diamonds in a platinum ring -- is displayed behind glass, within sight of the Hope Diamond.
Carmen had seen a picture of the ring in the autumn of 2002, on Cappiello's desk. Later that day, Carmen learned that her prognosis looked bad -- she ultimately died of cancer in March 2003.
"She was," Cappiello says, "a wonderful person."
On a recent summer weekend, the Smithsonian's gem gallery was teeming and glittering as usual. A mother with a camera slung around her neck stared at the ring, displayed on a stand above a commemorative plaque. The woman held out her left hand, as though wearing the ring herself, and smiled up at her husband.
Speaking by phone from his home, Buck says that whenever he visits the gallery, he spends some time with the ruby. He doesn't complain about the crowds (one imagines that in order to stand by the ruby for any length of time, Buck must endure a lot of elbowings and brushings-by). He enjoys eavesdropping as visitors pass by the gem.
"I remember," Buck says, "hearing one comment from a young lady: 'Huh. The guy goes and gives it to a museum. He could've given it to me!' "
And now the guy goes and gives a George Washington letter to a museum.
"I wish someone would give us something like that," says Jim Rees, executive director of George Washington's Mount Vernon estate. "There's a great signature at the end."
Rees says Washington was a prolific correspondent who penned about 25,000 letters during his lifetime. And, even in this economy, Rees says, the trade in Washington's letters is still bustling -- about 30 or 40 Washington letters change hands each year. William Reese, a New Haven dealer in American rare books and manuscripts, says that sales records show a wide range in prices for Washington letters written to David Stuart, from $10,000 (in 1996) to $155,000 (in 1993), though content and condition largely determine a Washington letter's value.
The letter Buck purchased was sent in 1785 from Washington to Stuart (a regular Washington correspondent and stepfather to Washington's grandchildren). It was kept by the Stuart family until recently, when it was sold to a dealer, who sold it to Cappiello, who sold it to Buck. Though he saw a copy before buying it, Buck still hasn't seen the letter in person.
Buck admits that, before purchasing the letter, he had "no previous interest in Washington artifacts in particular," though he does, in all seriousness, appreciate the letter's illuminating implications regarding the Commerce Clause.
As the subject of gifting is touched upon, Buck says, "Just don't say anything like, 'And this is Dr. Buck's way of giving back.' I never stole anything! So I'm not giving anything back!"
This amused-from-a-distance perspective on philanthropy and wealth is one that seems to come naturally to Buck, a man who has lived in the same house for 17 years and has a 13-year-old car parked in his driveway. (Though the Village People did perform at his 70th birthday party.)
His career began with a PhD in physics and a job designing nuclear reactors for the Navy. But in 1965, after Buck had moved to Connecticut to work for General Electric, he was approached at a picnic by a family friend, then-17-year-old Fred De Luca, who wanted to learn how he could earn money for college.
Buck recalls: "As Fred says . . . 'Pete was the only guy I knew that had a real job. So I figured he'd pull out a big roll of money and peel some bills off . . . but no!' "
Instead, Buck's mind jumped to subs. He thought of Amato's, the Italian sandwich shop he and his father had visited every Sunday evening during Buck's childhood, when he earned 20 cents an hour working on his father's farm.
"I was impressed by the ladies operating [Amato's]," Buck says. "They wore diamond necklaces and diamond earrings. . . .
"I said, 'Let's open a submarine sandwich store!' And, not having any better offer that day, Fred says: 'Eh! Okay! Let's do it.' "
The two drove to Maine, where they bought an Amato's sandwich and dissected it in the car. They then drove around to every sandwich store they could find and did the same. Within two weeks, their first store was up and running. They continued, doggedly, to open store after store, and it was 15 years, Buck says, before he and DeLuca broke even. Even after that, Subway grew at a rate so modest that Buck didn't dare quit his day job until the early 1980s.
"As our former accountant said, 'You guys were too dumb to stop!' " Buck says.
After DeLuca suggested franchising, the company took off, skyrocketing into ubiquity with the whole Jared saga, etc. Buck says he still eats at Subway -- tuna salad on Italian.
As yours truly proceeds with a "Cribs"-style line of questioning, fueled by the VH1-ish conviction that there lurks glossiness aplenty in the lifestyles of the rich and famous, it becomes apparent that Buck's isn't really a "Cribs" sort of life.
Because of health issues, Buck says he's currently unable to travel or pursue his erstwhile hobbies (flying glider planes, scuba diving and bowling), but he hopes to visit Washington for the next board meeting at the Museum of Natural History. Each winter, Buck visits Carmen's extended family in Brazil with his second son, William, who lives in New York. And Christopher, his older son, lives nearby in Danbury.
At the moment, Buck is occupied by -- among other things -- reading flight and scuba diving magazines and paging through Linus Pauling's "Introduction to Quantum Mechanics With Applications to Chemistry."
"You wanna get to sleep at night? Oh my God . . . you can't go more than half a page before you're so completely bewildered you just give up and fall asleep," Buck says.
But the minute Buck thinks about taking that knowledge in, he immediately says: "It's so incredibly difficult. Who am I going to discuss it with?"
A net worth like Buck's often serves to isolate, to rarefy and eccentrify. But in Buck's conversation (he has an unmistakable Maine accent and a penchant for free indirect discourse), there's little hint of any of that -- of isolated anything. He ingests Linus Pauling, and he immediately wonders whether he can parlay cogitation into conversation. The knowledge is -- like the ruby, like the letter -- no sooner taken in than simply given away again.