Can I get your autograph?

Friday, January 14, 2022
(Sentinel Photo by Beverly Van Buskirk) Autographs from sports legends Joe DiMaggio and Bobby Jones to presidents of the United States, including John F. Kennedy are part of the Celebrity Autograph Exhibit at the Le Mars Arts Center. The exhibit runs through Jan. 29.

LE MARS — The latest exhibit at the Le Mars Arts Center features 80 autographs from the Westmar Autograph Collection at the Plymouth County Historical Museum.

The exhibit opened on New Year’s Eve when the arts center hosted “A Star Studded Evening.”

At that time, Nancy Thoma, Le Mars Arts Council president, said, “We’ve selected 80 of the autographs from the large collection at the museum and we’re going to have those on display. These are all people mostly from the 50s through the 70s, some headshots of celebrities, politicians, movie stars, as well as authors and musicians.”

Annie Laursen, Le Mars Arts Center program director said the idea for the exhibit came from a couple of board members.

“They had known about the collection and thought about bringing it to the arts center for an exhibit at some point because we knew it hadn’t been visited for a while,” Laursen said. “We thought it would really interest a lot of people in the community as we could feature the photographs as well as the autographs. The story behind it is really cool as well.”

That story actually began in the 1950s.

The collection was given to Westmar College in 1971 by Donald Marshall, a 1962 Westmar graduate in memory of his parents, the Rev. and Mrs. L.B. Mitchell, who died in an automobile accident in the winter of 1971. Rev. Mitchell was a member of the Iowa Conference of the Evangelical United Brethren Church.

According to information provided by the college about the exhibit, Mitchell indicated he began his collection at the age of 13 in 1963 after receiving a school assignment to research someone who was not necessarily famous, but nevertheless an important figure.

He continued his hobby through high school but discontinued the activity in college and while in the military service. He resumed collecting on an organized basis in the fall of 1963. His basic method of collection involved sending approximately 365 hand-typed and written letters each year, with groups mailed twice a year.

When he donated the collection to the college, it was designated as The Donald L. Mitchell Collection of Autographs and Autographed Pictures. Mitchell kept as part of his collection envelopes and correspondence from those contacted, which he felt would add to the authenticity and value of the materials.

At that time, the collection was held in the Charles A. Mock Library at the college, with some autographs displayed from time to time.

After the college defaulted on their debt to the City of Le Mars, Westmar (College) University closed in 1997, and the city took over the property and building contents.

In 2000, the collection was set to be sold at auction to help retire part of the Westmar debt.

Community members stepped up in support of keeping the collection. The city council ultimately decided to keep the entire collection and to have the Le Mars Arts Council responsible for the upkeep.

By 2005, the fate of the collection was again discussed. At that time, representatives of the Plymouth County Historical Museum were negotiating with the city to have the collection turned over to the museum.

An agreement between the City of Le Mars and the Plymouth County Historical Museum regarding gifting the entire Westmar Art and Autograph Collection to the museum was approved in September 2005.

That agreement, on recommendation by the Westmar Art and Autograph Committee and city staff, encompassed the entire collection, including paintings, sculptures and autographed items. The only restriction on the gift is that it remain in Le Mars and that the museum must work with the Le Mars Arts Council, the Ice Cream Capital of the World Visitor’s Center and other appropriate venues to keep the collection in the public view.

The collections were received by the museum in December 2006.

Since the exhibit opened, Laursen said there has been a lot of interest in it.

“We had a good response to the exhibit at the New Year’s Eve celebration,” Laursen said. “We got a lot of questions about all of it and we had to do some digging just to make sure we understood who gathered it, how it was done to get them all, and how do we know they are real.”

Since that opening night, Laursen said people have been coming to see the exhibit.

“They’ve been really interested in it, and the same as opening night, there were a lot of questions and especially amazement at how many autographs there are in total. It’s kind of fun,” she said.

The autographs will be on display through Jan. 29. The gallery hours are 1-5 p.m., Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday; 1-7 p.m., Thursday; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, and closed Sunday and Monday.

The exhibit is available for viewing by special request outside of regular hours. Call the arts center at 712-546-7476.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: