Photos by Libby Arnosti ’14
George Washington’s signature came from a shipping manifesto the first president signed upon receiving a delivery of flour. President Nixon addressed his signature to Whitman College, as did President Jimmy Carter.
These are just three of the complete collection of official presidential signatures hanging on the third floor of Penrose Library. The signatures originally belonged to Supreme Court Justice and Whitman alumnus William O. Douglas ’20, and formerly hung in his office. The collection has grown since Douglas donated it in 1965 thanks to the diligent work of each Whitman librarian, whose job it is to acquire the signature of each new president.
So how did Whitman’s current librarian obtain these authentic signatures?
“It’s not easy,” said Dalia Corkrum, director of Penrose Library. “We have to use our connections.”
Having once worked with an aide for U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Washington state representative, Corkrum said the aide helped her acquire President George W. Bush’s signature.
President Obama’s signature came about thanks to a Whitman alumnus. Trustee Walter Minnick ’64, a former U.S. Rep. from Idaho, secured the signature of the 44th president.
The signatures of every U.S. president make up a valuable collection and are an important piece of U.S. history. The collection resides in three display cases all with museum-quality glass and lighting. Melissa Salrin, archivist and special collections librarian, says that if Whitman wanted to protect the value of the collection, the signatures would be kept in a dark room under lock and key so they wouldn’t continue to fade.
But concealing the signatures wouldn’t be any fun.
“The collection is not just meant for scholarly research,” Salrin said. “It’s also meant to be fun and for people to appreciate.”
However, the tradition of Whitman librarians sleuthing for the signatures of U.S. presidents might be coming to an end. The final display case has room for only a few more signatures before it’s full.
“I thought about ending the tradition, but I thought it’d be better to have someone else stop it rather than it end on my watch,” Corkrum said. “But we are getting to the end of the collection space.”