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Buffalo museum curator had a unique window on Charles Rand Penney

Kathy Leacock, director of collections for the Buffalo Museum of Science, stands in the new Yum! exhibit Tuesday. As a child, Leacock curated her book collection and kept toys packaged. She got her big career break as a curator for Charles Rand Penney, and inherited his Mr. Peanut collection after his death.

Kathy Leacock, director of collections for the Buffalo Museum of Science, stands in the new Yum! exhibit Tuesday. As a child, Leacock curated her book collection and kept toys packaged. She got her big career break as a curator for Charles Rand Penney, and inherited his Mr. Peanut collection after his death. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Kathy Leacock was a junior anthropology major at SUNY Buffalo State in 1998 when she got an opportunity that launched her career.

“One of my teachers was looking for someone to work on an exciting project ‘all the way out in Lockport,’” she said during a recent interview for this weekend’s WNY Refresh In the Field story (read it here).

Leacock and her parents, William and Pauline, had moved to Lockport a couple of years earlier from their native England when her dad got a job at Harrison Radiator.

The family moved to a small city that may seem a near-eternity to some in Buffalo – it’s about 25 miles away – but Lockport also played home to Charles Rand Penney, an avid art and memorabilia collector who traveled to more than 75 countries while amassing his extensive collections.

“I am a leading expert in Planter’s Mr. Peanut,” said Leacock, who ended up working full-time for Penney before taking her job at the science museum in 2003. She worked with Penney to organize and catalogue his collection until his death in 2010.

“When I started working with him, he had more than 150 different collections depending on how you want to categorize it,” Leacock said. “He said, ‘What do you want to start with?’ Right behind him was this funky Mr. Peanut mask and it had this wire coming out of its ear. If you pulled on it, its eyes moved. It was the freakiest thing. So I said, ‘Mr. Peanut.’ I catalogued his whole Mr. Peanut collection. When he passed, he left it to me. I had to sell the piece with the eyes. It was too big to fit in my house.”

Below are other related excerpts from our talk.

Q. Why did he decide to collect that stuff?

He learned that pop culture in America had three icons: Mickey Mouse, Mr. Peanut and Ronald McDonald. He felt Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald got their fair share, so he was going to be a champion of Mr. Peanut. If you count all the papers, all the boxes, all the packaging – the cheese curls, cheese puffs, boxes from the Planter’s company before Mr. Peanut – there are hundreds of items. I have costumes. I could dress up like Mr. Peanut.

Q. What was Mr. Penney’s philosophy of collecting?

He was the epitome of the object-based learner. Everyone learns in a different way and he learned through objects. If he wanted to learn about something, he did it through three-dimensional objects. He left Lockport and moved to Olcott and wanted to learn about it, so he started collecting postcards of what Olcott used to look like. It developed from postcards to little chotskies you would get at Olcott Beach.

All of his antique collections grew out of wanting to learn about something. His art collections, he wanted to acquire a piece from all the major artists. He had a Picasso. He had a Hopper. He also was a patron of Burchfield.

One of his other major collections – and the reason I ended up here at the museum – was world’s fairs. We had one in Buffalo in 1901, so he learned about the Pan-American Exposition and started collecting items from that. He saw it was part of a continuum, so he started collecting all of America’s world’s fairs. He went to some. He went to the 1933 World's Fair with his dad – he was only 10 at the time – and went back to 1964 in New York. World’s fairs was a really big part. After Mr. Peanut, I worked on those.

Q. Where have items from the Penney collection gone in Western New York and what’s the status of the collection?

Kathy Leacock help organize Charles Rand Penney's collection, which included these pieces. "Gertrude" is the sculpture keeping watch. (Bill Wippert/Buffalo News file photo)

Kathy Leacock help organize Charles Rand Penney's collection, which included these pieces. "Gertrude" is the sculpture keeping watch. (Bill Wippert/Buffalo News file photo)

That could be a separate article. We’re working now on a project called “Penney Trail.” It’s a collaborative project of six cultural institutions that all acquired items from Mr. Penney’s collection. The collection is spread across the country but the majority of it is in Western New York. Through Penney Trail, which was funded by an IMLS (Institute of Museum Library Services) grant, we’re virtually putting the collection back together. It’s the Buffalo Museum of Science, the Castellani Art Museum (at Niagara University), Niagara County Historical Society – the principal on the project – the Theodore Roosevelt site, Burchfield Penney Art Center and the E.H. Butler Library at Buffalo State College. This will result in a website, a link to all of the places the Penney collection is. (See the start of the trail website here.)

Here at the Buffalo Museum of Science, we received Mr. Penney’s collection of African art – some material from Africa and some material from Papua New Guinea. We call it his ethnographic collections. He was in Papua New Guinea in 1988.

Q. He must have had an ambitious curiosity.

Yeah, and a big pocketbook. He’s Charles Rand Penney. The Rands were bankers. The Rand Building downtown was a gift to Buffalo in 1929. The Rand Family started Marine Bank. The Penneys were lawyers. Mr. Penney’s grandfather was Thomas Penney. He was the district attorney in Buffalo in 1901 and he tried Leon Czolgosz for the assassination of McKinley. Mr. Penney was a lawyer. He was a bachelor. When his mother died in the 1980s, he took a break from law and traveled the world.

Q. What did he tell you in terms of the favorite places he’d been or the most interesting experiences he’d had?

His stock answer would be, “Kathy, if someone asked who your favorite child, would you give them an answer? They’re all my favorites.”

Q. What struck you the most about him?

He was the end of an era. There’s very few people who live that kind of life anymore, and there were a few at the time, these Buffalo collectors. There was Charles Rand Penney. There was Jay Warren Perry. Cerita Weeks, a woman whose collection is here at the science museum. They lived a privileged life but they also traveled and collected, acquired these materials. I’m not from that background and don’t know if it really happens that much anymore. Mr. Penney went to the best schools. He went away to prep school. He went to boarding school. It’s a different lifestyle.

Q. He also seemed to have a sense of place, of purpose, of history.

He loved Western New York. He always used to say, “I could have gone anywhere and I chose Western New York.” He certainly left his collections, his money and everything to Western New York’s cultural institutions.

Q. How did that job help propel your career?

I wouldn’t have known anything about the Pan-American Exposition if it wasn’t for Mr. Penney. That’s how I started here. Also, his internship prepared me for collections management: object handling, cataloguing, all that kind of stuff I did at Mr. Penney’s that I transferred to doing here. The content about world’s fairs came out of his collection and I was able to come here and be familiar with one small portion of the museum’s collection. Once I finished that, I moved on to a different collection and a different collection. I haven’t gotten through all 750,000 objects just yet – but that’s job security.

email: refresh@buffnews.com

Twitter: @BNrefresh

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