Lincoln began it all for me

Rob Woods was one of the elder statesmen of the town where I grew up, Woodstock, Vt. He used to take pride in saying, ''I don't take Roosevelt dimes in change. He wasn't worth it.''

That was the first time I remember anyone assigning a value to a US president. Mr. Woods, successful businessman and staunch Republican in staunch-Republican Vermont of the 1950s, also spoke freely his low opinion of another Democratic president, Harry Truman. I also recall that Mr. Woods did not return unopened his social security checks.

Mr. Woods, generally a man of good humor, would certainly have scolded me, the son of one of his employees, for recently paying $200 for FDR - for his autograph, that is. And my paying $150 for a Truman signature would certainly have brought his wrath.

I doubt, however, that he would have taken issue with my spending $400 some years back on a document signed by Republican President Abraham Lincoln. And the seller threw in a document signed by Republican Rutherford B. Hayes.

The Lincoln purchase began for me what has become a fascinating, sometimes frustrating, sometimes costly hobby - autograph collecting. It really began one stormy day in 1974 on the Maine coast. My uncle was telling me about his World War II experiences, about how big waves such as we were watching had rocked the landing craft off Guadalcanal. I mentioned my interest in the Civil War. Uncle pointed toward the business district of Kennebunkport and said he'd once purchased there a document signed by Lincoln.

I asked if he still owned it. No, he'd sold it. He said he'd paid $200. I thought, ''You mean, I could perhaps afford something signed by Lincoln?''

A year later in a Vermont antique shop I discovered an 1864 military commission appointing a Vermonter as paymaster in the Union Army. At the bottom was the small and shaky signature ''Abraham Lincoln.'' I put down a deposit and hurried with the commission to a book dealer down in Brattleboro who, a friend told me, could authenticate the signature. The shaky handwriting worried me. But I was assured by the dealer that the signature was ''a fine example.'' I took his advice when he said, ''Buy it.''

But why was the signature so shaky? I asked. ''It was 1864 and the war was getting to him.''

I now know that in the spring of 1864 Abraham Lincoln, deeply troubled by the daily casualty tolls from killing grounds like the Wilderness and Spotsylvania, took to walking the White House corridors at night, and when he signed his name his huge hand trembled.

That shaky signature became for me an extraordinary statement on a crucial period in American history and a profound comment on the man Lincoln.

Down the years I've become a collector of American autographs with a special interest in presidents. I have the resolute signature of Grant, the methodical signature of Eisenhower, the hurried signature of John Kennedy, the confident signature of Jimmy Carter, the bold signature of LBJ, the carefully crafted signature of Coolidge, Nixon's signature with attention to penmanship, and many more.

A complete collection may be beyond my means. Washington and Jefferson autographs usually command $1,000 and more. And our incumbent President Reagan has proved elusive. Mr. Reagan has never been a prolific letter writer. Requests for his signature mailed to the White House usually bring signatures penned by a machine called an autopen - the bane of autograph collectors. Often his pre-presidential letters are typed, then signed. Handwritten letters by him are indeed rare.

Recently I was given the chance to purchase a collection of some 40 letters of well-known people, letters written in the early 1960s. The letters had apparently been solicited by a filmmaker to endorse a movie on fire prevention. A quick glance at the collection disclosed signatures of, among others, Nelson Eddy, Eddie Cantor, Omar Bradley, Jack Benny, Leopold Stokowski, Dick Powell, Erskine Caldwell, and Upton Sinclair. I paid the very reasonable price.

One recent evening I decided to make a more thorough examination of my new possessions. I soon grew somewhat tired of reading the celebrities' repetitious warnings about fire danger.

''In my opinion, fire safety is of basic importance to family life all over the United States.'' - Leopold Stokowski.

''One should fight fire with the same fervor one fights for his freedom.'' - Dick Powell.

''An educational film on fire safety should contribute greatly to the reduction of fire losses.'' - Omar Bradley.

I was about to return the letters to their manila envelope when I noticed a letter I'd not seen before, tucked away in the fold of a Maureen O'Sullivan missive. The letter, in blue ballpoint, read:

''I have always believed that proper action in an emergency is the result of previous thought and planning. No where is this more true or essential than in the swift destructive potential of a fire.''


''Ronald Reagan.''

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