Oregon History Museum's 'Windows on America' exhibit offers insight into U.S. leaders and their eras

by: PHOTOS COURTESY OF MARK FAMILY COLLECTION - Pete Mark joyfully acquired presidential collectibles, including a Lincoln assassination wanted poster, from dealers in the past 51 years, as he holds presidents in high regard, especially Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, the Roosevelts and Kennedy.On a trip to visit his first collectibles dealer, Mary Benjamin, in New York one year, Melvin “Pete” Mark looked up on the wall and saw a signed letter.

It was a handwritten letter from Franklin D. Roosevelt to a friend. It read, in part, “Don’t collect letters for the signature, collect letters for the content.”

Mark wanted it, and Benjamin finally sold it to him. His fascination and enthusiasm for collecting rare presidential artifacts and documents had been galvanized. Mark owns an astounding 300-plus number of collectibles, many of which will be part of “Windows on America,” a public debut of his collection that opens at the Oregon History Museum on June 15 and will likely be displayed throughout the year.

Mark, the chairman of the board and former chief executive of Melvin Mark Companies, a large commercial real estate firm, beams with pride when talking about his collection. It has been five decades in the making, and consists of collectibles from some of his favorite presidents — George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, the Roosevelts, Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy.

The “colorful presidents” intrigue Mark. “If you’re looking for Millard Fillmore, you’re coming to the wrong place,” says Kerry Tymchuk, Oregon Historical Society executive director.

When Tymchuk took the reins of the Oregon Historical Society two years ago, he and Mark talked about displaying the collectibles for the first time. Tymchuk had served as chief of staff to U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith, and knew the Marks — Pete and his late wife, Mary Kay, who had literally kept the items in a vault for their own personal enjoyment.

“It had to be done properly, and having it at the historical society is where it really belongs,” Mark says. “It belongs to the public. My goal was to get the population of Oregon, that’s been very good to me and my family, to be interested in history. ... This is the first time we’ve done that, in a first-class way, showing the public the presidents in an interesting fashion — today’s fashion with video screens and touch screens and the whole thing.”

Mark’s collection was born 51 years ago. His mother-in-law, after striking out trying to acquire a Theodore Roosevelt letter, purchased a different Roosevelt letter from Benjamin for Mark’s birthday — for $35. Mark worked with Benjamin for years, before her death, and then afterward with a dealer in Boston. For the past 15 years or so, Mark has worked with Joseph Maddalena of Los Angeles.

“This is the biggest show here (at OHS) since the Magna Carta in the 1980s,” Tymchuk says.

Usually, it’s the children or grandchildren of former presidents who are selling items. “To a president, it’s just one more item,” Mark says.

Huge silhouettes of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and FDR greet exhibit visitors.

Mark has his favorites among his multimillion-dollar collection. The Oregon Historical Society items alone are valued at $8 million to $10 million.

He owns a copy of the Atlantic Charter — the forerunner to the United Nations — the only one signed by Winston Churchill and FDR. It originated from George Elsey, President Truman’s assistant, who arranged to have the two leaders sign it. “It is in perfect shape,” Mark says.

He has the layout sketch for the Mount Vernon estate owned by Washington. He actually has a lot of Washington and Jefferson artifacts, having gone to the University of Virginia, which the nation’s early presidents founded.

Pete Mark says his late wife Mary Kay encouraged him to collect presidential memorabilia through the years.He purchased one of Kennedy’s rocking chairs; the president of “Camelot” days suffered from a bad back, from an injury during his time on PT 109 in World War II.

There’s a replica of the 13th Amendment from the House of Representatives — abolishing slavery — in 1865. A recent acquisition was the farewell statement by Gen. Robert E. Lee to Confederate troops in 1865. Mark has a signed copy of the Chicago Tribune that infamously headlined “Dewey Defeats Truman” in 1948 — signed by Truman (“they got this wrong”) and Thomas Dewey (“they sure did”); he owns Truman’s top hat from the inauguration. A curiosity is a CBS-TV camera that filmed Jack Ruby shooting purported JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald in 1963, along with Ruby’s wallet and contents.

Tymchuk’s favorite is a page from Teddy Roosevelt’s 1912 speech in Milwaukee, Wis., after he had been shot in an assassination attempt. The page has a bullet hole in it — and Teddy still gave the speech despite having a bullet in his chest.

Mark had been holding the collection for private enjoyment. It was a big blow when his wife died four years ago. The two had been married 58 years, and she “encouraged me all the time,” Mark says.

It was time to put the collection on display.

“Her field was art, and she spent a lot of time with the (Portland) Art Museum,” he says. “I continued on with the art museum — chairman of the board for two terms — then I thought, ‘Well, I love history,’ and I started working with the Oregon Historical Society. It wasn’t until Kerry came along two years ago that I really got interested. Kerry was the key.”

EISENHOWER UNIFORMTymchuk worked to upgrade the Oregon History Museum, and “Windows on America” will be the refurbished museum’s debut. The exhibit was designed by Ancona & Associates. The museum, at 1200 S.W. Park Ave., is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. Guided tours will be offered at noon and 2 p.m. Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

Mark envisions his collectibles going on tour, backed by the Smithsonian Institution.

“But, Oregon’s been very good to me,” he says. “I wanted it here first.”

And it’s only the beginning. In the future, full exhibits of collectibles from Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Kennedy are planned.

Tymchuk says: “I think it’s the finest collection this side of the Smithsonian, as far as presidential memorabilia.”

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