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Retired professor boasts autographs from 300 world leaders

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By Richard Robbins
Monday, Jan. 3, 2011

For Leonard Siegel, meeting Harry Truman was a life-changing experience.

In fall 1948, Siegel was a freshman at John Carroll University near Cleveland when he went with a group of friends to see the president on a campaign swing around Ohio.

Having ascended to the White House upon the death of Franklin Roosevelt in 1945, the former vice president wasn't given much of a chance in that year's presidential election against Republican Thomas E. Dewey.

But Siegel was struck by Truman's confidence. Dressed in a snappy doubled-breasted suit and stylish two-tone shoes, the president walked briskly across the red carpet toward Siegel and his friends.

"He had big, strong hands," Siegel recalled. "A real muscular guy, which was surprising."

Truman clasped Siegel by the shoulder and uttered words the future historian never forgot: "Apparent defeat today will mean victory for me in November."

Siegel, 82, who retired in 1992 as a professor of history at California University of Pennsylvania, said he was guided from that day on by Truman's never-give-up spirit.

He got something else from Truman -- an autograph, part of his collection of signatures from about 300 world leaders.

Siegel said the signatures, which run the gamut from German dictator Adolf Hitler and Cuba's Fidel Castro to every president back to Herbert Hoover, connect him to world events.

"They tie me to history," Siegel said of the autographs, as he spread a dozen across a desk at his house a few blocks from the Cal U campus, where he spent 32 years in the classroom.

Siegel has tucked away some of the autographs at home. The rest he's given to his son, Bill, a high school teacher in Freeport, for safekeeping. Siegel hopes the entire collection eventually ends up at the Senator John Heinz History Center in the Strip District.

"For me, there's nothing like them," he said of the signatures.

Besides Truman, the man Siegel admires most was Richard Nixon. Siegel got his first Nixon autograph in 1957, when the future president was vice president under Dwight Eisenhower.

Siegel, a Democrat, said he's not sure what first attracted him to the Republican, except that "Nixon struck me as an interesting person."

The attraction deepened over the years, as Siegel maintained an active correspondence with Nixon. In 1991, nearly 20 years after Nixon's resignation from the presidency, Siegel traveled to Saddle River, N.J., where Nixon had an office, for a two-hour conversation.

"He was a very nice person," Siegel said. "I liked him from the correspondence. I liked him even more when I met him."

According to a former colleague, Siegel has a phenomenal memory. "He recalls dates and conversation in minute detail," said John Kent Folmar, emeritus professor of history at Cal U.

Siegel paints a vivid picture of his first opportunity for an autograph, even though it was 70 years ago.

"I was 12, and my Aunt Martha introduced me to Wendell Willkie. I remember he wore a maroon jacket with brown buttons," Siegel said of the 1940 Republican nominee for president. "And he was tall."

Siegel's aunt, Martha Bradley, was a journalist in Cleveland. She encouraged the youngster to ask for Willkie's autograph and to collect others. A short time later, he wrote a letter to the White House. Within weeks, an autographed photograph of President Franklin Roosevelt arrived in the mail.

He said there's a secret to landing autographs from the high and mighty.

"You have to say things that please people," Siegel said.

He recalled writing a letter "full of flattery" to Castro. He had nice things to say about environmental policy to Al Gore. He told George W. Bush that he thought the then-president was right when he spoke of the need for national unity in the wake of 9/11.

Some autograph opportunities have come out of the blue. Siegel said he was conferring with colleagues in the college history department when he was called to the telephone in April 1984. On the line was Ronald Reagan's secretary, who peppered him with questions about Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini.

At the time, Siegel was teaching a class on 20th-century dictatorships.

"At first I thought it was a joke," Siegel said.

Finally, the president himself got on the telephone to thank Siegel for his help. "He asked if there was anything he could for me," Siegel said. "I said, 'You could send me your and Nancy's autographs.' "

Some autographs have unintended results, a fact that Siegel learned after his encounter with Truman in 1948.

"Dewey was so confident," Siegel said. "Anybody who gets overconfident is in for a fall."

Meanwhile, Truman was campaigning with the kind of grit and determination that reflected his roots as a Missouri dirt farmer.

Siegel took the president's side in an election bet with college classmates.

"I had $9.91 in my pocket, just about all I had," he remembered. "I bet it all on Truman."

When Truman defeated Dewey, Siegel collected winnings amounting to $131.91, enough to cover the cost of tuition for the next semester.

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