Later this year — the Good Lord willing and the creeks don't rise — this newspaper plans to publish a book about presidents who have visited the Lehigh Valley, and what they did when they were here.
I've spent most of the month of May researching this topic. One of the people I visited was a funeral director named Stephen Cunningham who lives in Nazareth and has a collection of presidential memorabilia that numbers hundreds of items and belongs in a museum, or at least somewhere more accessible than his attic.
Some of these items will probably find their way into the book, but a lot of them won't, because they don't pertain directly to the topic. But it seemed a shame not to tell you that a resident of our Valley owns, among other rarities, two commemorative pingpong paddles celebrating President Nixon's visit to China.
One paddle is blue and has a caricature of Nixon on it. The other is red, naturally, and bears the visage of Chairman Mao. Both men look jolly, though history remembers neither very kindly.
Cunningham is 47 years old and has never missed voting in an election — primary, general or special —since he was first allowed to vote. That was during the Reagan years, but the first presidential election he remembers with any clarity is the Nixon-McGovern contest of 1972.
It was the start of a lifelong obsession with the world's most powerful leaders. Over the years he has haunted antique shops and junk stores in search of buttons, photos, engravings, banners, pendants and kitschy knickknacks — anything with the name of a presidential candidate, successful or otherwise.
Cunningham is a historian by temperament — he is finishing his term as president of the Moravian Historical Society's board of directors — so the atmosphere of antique stores is quite breathable to him. That isn't the case for everyone, of course.
"When my son was young, I would get him into the antique stores and he said he used to get 'antique sick,'" he said.
His collection grew from a solitary Eisenhower button, a gift from his grandmother at age 15, to what it is today: a massive hodgepodge cataloged only in his head.
He has a Hillary Clinton nutcracker ("Is America ready for this nutcracker?") and a button suggesting diminutive former Labor Secretary Robert Reich (4 feet 10 inches) ought to be on the presidential "short list." He has a pack of Salem menthol cigarettes with the White House seal, a souvenir handout for grown-ups after tours of the presidential mansion years ago.
He has a Reagan toilet paper cover — the paper comes out through the president's mouth — and a set of Ron and Nancy slippers. He has a Jimmy Carter bottle opener suitable for opening your Billy Beer, the brand marketed by the president's ne'er-do-well brother. And he has Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich dolls infused with catnip.
It's not all funny stuff. There's a framed copy of a somber poem written by a local minister when James Garfield was assassinated, and stereoscope cards depicting the casket of another slain president, William McKinley.
McKinley was succeeded by his vice president, Theodore Roosevelt. Cunningham said he has some ancestral connection on his father's side to the Rough Rider, who was elected to a full term in 1904 and ran unsuccessfully in 1912 as a third-party candidate.
"It's one of those things you have to use Ancestry.com for," he said.
Still, even a tenuous relation to a president is a nice bragging right for a man with an abiding fascination for the chief executive — an interest as strong today as it was in the 1970s, when most his age were playing sandlot baseball and that sort of thing.
"I must have been a strange kid," Cunningham mused. "I watched the Watergate hearings."