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Johnson heir explains her view of collection issue

December 13, 2011
The Journal

To the Editor and the people of New Ulm:

I'm writing this letter in an attempt to clarify the background of the current issues regarding the Fred Johnson autographed photograph collection. Most of the residents of New Ulm do not remember my grandfather or his sons and daughter. Many people remember me, as I was born in 1931, grew up in the Dakota Hotel, and attended school in New Ulm until 1944 when my parents left to build B-29s in Washington State during World War II.

If you've been wondering how George Glotzbach became involved in all this, you have to understand that we grew up together and our families were close friends from the time of our births. Since I live in Arizona, George very kindly offered to be my spokesman in New Ulm. He is a true friend. I trust him and I appreciate his help and advice.

Now then Grandpa Johnson worked on his collections at his home at 12 North Broadway until the library and museum were built next to his home in the 1930s. He led the drive to raise money for a new library. He also founded the Brown County Historical Society, as his growing natural history and historical documents needed a home.

At that time the museum was on the lower floor of the library they were one entity - and Grandpa was museum curator. My grandfather's office was in the museum. He worked there every day he could until the end of his life. Except for a few favorite portraits and some papers that he kept at home, he left the autographed photograph collection in his office at the museum, and I'm sure that is where he intended it to stay.

Neither my grandfather nor his heirs left the collection to the City of New Ulm.

When Grandpa died Aug. 12, 1948, the collection was in the possession of the museum. Quoting the New Ulm Review Feb. 24, 1949: "Although Mr. Johnson had made no legal provision for the collection to be turned over to the library, the children, including Judge [Russell] Johnson, Norman Johnson, Belleville, Kansas, and Mrs. James Cuddy, Minneapolis, agreed that it was the wish of their father that the collection be given a permanent resting place in the museum and Judge Johnson was also carrying their wishes in presenting it to the library."

On Feb. 7, 1950 the City Council approved a Deed of Gift signed by my uncle, aunt and father leaving the collection to the New Ulm Library Board. The Deed of Gift stated that the entire collection "remain in said Library Board forever, conditioned, however, that said collection nor any part thereof shall ever be sold, assigned, conveyed, or otherwise disposed of by said Library Board without the written consent of the donors, title therein and possession thereof to revert to donor upon violation of this condition." (Uncle Russell was a lawyer and municipal judge.)

The confusion began when the city took over the library, and the museum moved to its present location. The Brown County Historical Society kept the Johnson collection in its archives and had several partial exhibits over the years, according to Research Librarian Darla Gebhard.

At some point, the city removed the collection from the museum and hauled it off to City Hall. In a May 18, 2009 letter I received from City Manager Brian D. Gramentz, he stated: "Due to space needs at the museum, the collection and fire proof file cabinets were moved to the second floor of City Hall." There they remain.

When it became increasingly evident that the collection had monetary value, the city began to look into possible sales by contacting Swann Galleries in New York, a firm that specialize in the auction of documents. At that time, I was dead set against breaking up the world-class collection or selling it. If it came into my possession at that time, I would have donated it to the Smithsonian, Library of Congress or a university. The problem with that was, it would have been archived and preserved but, as usual, not available to the public.

George Lowry, CEO of Swann, called and emailed me several times to talk about a possible sale. He had been in New Ulm, seen the collection, and believed they could auction successfully approximately 300 items from the 3,600 unit collection. He also said that Swann would publicize the part they auction, make it perpetually available to the academic community, to scholars and collectors around the world, as well as to local residents. The items for auction would also be pictured in an all-color-annotated catalog that would be distributed worldwide, and would have a preface telling about my grandfather and his work.

As a journalist, I realize we live in a vastly different world than we did 60 years ago. I felt the collection needed to go online. After giving the matter deep consideration, I decided an agreement with Swann could benefit people throughout the world as well as the city. Therefore, I signed an affidavit giving the city permission to dispose of a portion of the collection providing money from the sales went to the New Ulm Public Library.

Why the library? Because the library benefits the entire community. Libraries are no longer just books. They provide people with computers, classes, forms and information. The library board and librarian should decide what money from a possible auction is used for, not the city council, although they have to approve expenditures.

My grandfather grew up in extreme poverty in a Swedish-speaking household. His brother, Gov. John A. Johnson, had to drop out of school to help support their single mother. Grandfather finished high school and became self-educated through public libraries. He had one of the finest intellects of anyone I've ever known. He served as Minnesota State Librarian under Gov. John Lind before coming back to live in his adopted German town.

People may be wondering why I am giving away my legal right to the largest autographed photograph collection of famous people in the world. For one thing, I'm 80 years old and have done nearly everything I've ever wanted to do, although I'm still working on my "Bucket's List". I am comfortable and warm in my little mountain cabin. I have friends and work that I love. That's all I need. Secondly, the Johnsons and Seiters always believed in giving back. New Ulm gave me a good start in life; my grandfather gave me his genes.

Jo Baeza

Pinetop, Ariz.



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