CMC History: Presidential Signature Collection

What do the National Archives and Claremont Mckenna have in common? Well, besides attracting a lot of government-minded people, they both can lay claim to an authentic George Washington signature. In fact, lining the back wall of the upper level of the Crocker Reading Room is the official signature of every past president of the United States.  Despite its impressive nature, the collection remains a bit of a hidden gem, although perhaps not for long thanks to its recent feature in a six-list. The collection began when Roy P. Crocker, who was a banker in Los Angeles at Crocker Citizens National Bank, decided to donate what he had collected to the college for its use and display. After he donated his massive collection, the college decided to select one example of each of the Presidential autographs and then auction the rest off at Sotheby’s New York art exhibition.

One person who played an instrumental role in working to determine which examples CMC would keep and which ones it would sell was Jim Hier CM ’78, a banker who currently works at a credit union in Portland, Oregon and good friends with Jimmy Carter. Malcolm Forbes, editor of Forbes magazine, who is quite an autograph hound, purchased the second collection.  But then when he passed away four or five years ago, the collection was re-auctioned at Sotheby’s, so it became the Crocker-McKenna-Forbes presidential memorabilia collection.

The collection was subject to a bit of skullduggery when a thief absconded with the Richard Nixon letter.

“When the collection was first presented, the letters were just in frames, not the cases they are now, so someone stole the Nixon letter and it went missing for sometime,” Hier explained, “after a while it was returned, but it looked a little different and we determined that it was a photocopy, but we were never able to find out who stole it.”

Luckily, Hier had amassed a sizable collection and was generous enough to replace the fake with a genuine signature.   Now the Nixon that currently resides in the reading room is actually addressed personally to Hier.

“Nixon obviously wasn’t real popular, but I had just completed an internship in DC in 1978, and I was interested in reviving my collection so I wrote a letter to Nixon not excusing what he did, but just letting him know I understand what its like to be part of the scene and thanking him for years of presidential service,” Hier explained,  “in appreciation, he gave me a signed copy of his memoirs. I got to write him on various occasions, and I had 12 or 13 letters, so I substituted one for the missing Nixon”

The Nixon letter also marks a transition in the collection as all the letters since that one are personally addressed to CMC. When Crocker passed away, CMC had to shift to working to obtain the letters itself.   One notable example is the letter from Ronald Reagan, which is completely handwritten and addressed to former CMC President Jack Stark.  In addition, the letter was the first one to acknowledge the existence of the collection.

Another notable letter is the George Washington, which is addressed to John Jay and mentions stepping on a coach to the constitutional convention. The one from William Henry Harrison is the most battle-tested: it has a mysterious black X etched across the signature and strange discoloration.  The most recent letters such as the ones from Bill Clinton and George W. Bush are the most personal as they are directly addressed to the college and praise the merits of CMC.

Another interesting fact about the Crocker Reading room is that it also houses former CMC President George C.S. Benson’s original desk from Pitzer Hall, which used to stand where Kravis Center does now.

The collection is not quite fully complete though as the CMC is yet to obtain a signature from President Barack Obama, but Vice President for Alumni Relations John Faranda is in hot pursuit, “I’ve actually been working on it for years,” he stated, “but the complication is that most signatures are done by machines so we have not been successful.  A mother of a CMC student went to Punahao with Obama, and she thought she could just get one, but turns out that was not very easy, so we are working on other means.”