Collectors gather for annual C-U stamp exposition

By Jim Vorel

Some people collect baseball cards. Some collect seashells. Some are philatelists.

A Honus Wagner card for the first, a sand dollar for the second, an “Inverted Jenny” for the third.

What is a philatelist? A practitioner of philately, a philatelist is known to most as your garden-variety stamp collector.

The term, coined in 1864, is the self-taken group name of a surprisingly popular past-time for many Americans and people the world over. The sheer number and variety of stamps to collect is mind-boggling. The Inverted Jenny happens to be a famous misprint of a 1918 U.S. Postage stamp that was printed upside down and has been known to sell for upwards of $150,000.

While not a booming metropolis, Champaign-Urbana houses a sizable population of these amateur stamp collectors. And while no Inverted Jennies were present, the Champaign-Urbana Philatelic Exposition, better known as CUPEX, which happened Saturday, was nonetheless a spirited gathering of stamp collectors both young and old from the immediate area and beyond.

A crowd of perhaps 100 “Illinois Postal Enthusiasts” packed the Urbana Civic Center, 108 E. Water St., gathering stamp dealers, stamp buyers and stamp aficionados.

“The purpose of the exposition is to give philatelists from the whole area a place to gather and discuss this hobby that they might not get a chance to elsewhere,” said Louise Toft, one of the organizers from the Champaign-Urbana Stamp Club. “We have over a dozen stamp dealers here, and the buyers can find stamps of practically any type that they’re interested in.”

The 66-year-old Toft has been to 14 additional annual CUPEX gatherings and has been collecting stamps for over half a century.

“I got my first stamp album Christmas day when I was ten years old,” Toft recalled, smiling. “I had no idea what I was getting into.”

In the center of the stamp-buying commotion was a wall of boards where members of the Champaign-Urbana Stamp Club displayed some of their more interesting finds in an exhibit-like format.

Included on the wall were sections devoted to stamps from every conceivable country, famous movie monsters, stamps of the U.S.S.R., and of course, a section of stamps entirely devoted to the image of Elvis Presley.

Viewers milled around these displays and voted for their personal favorites.

Of equal interest to the participants were presentations given in side-rooms by special guests to the annual gathering. In one room, Timothy G. Wait of the Illinois Postal History Society gave a presentation of the history of Illinois post offices and their postmasters. The 47-year-old Wait was flanked by his 15-year-old son Adam.

“I’m such a big postal history buff, it was only a matter of time before he became one,” Wait said. “I collect civil-war era documentation and stamps, and Adam collects stamps featuring the Winter Olympics.”

Wait has been studying postal history for about 30 years and attends conventions like this one to give presentations and offer memberships to the Illinois Postal History Society to interested philatelists.

Several times, seemingly complete strangers approached each other only to say “Didn’t we meet and talk about this six years ago?”

In some cases, generations have passed, leading to remarks of “I knew your father! We used to talk at the Chicago convention 15 years ago!”

The community was homey and tight knit, and there was a particular sense of familiarity displayed by all the attendees.

One woman who claimed only partial devotion was Mary Sleeth, 71.

“I’m really only more of a hobbyist … though I have come to this convention for the last ten years,” Sleeth said.

Sleeth collects mostly patriotic United States stamps, and at this year’s convention, she picked up a few interesting foreign stamps in German that she said she hopes to have translated.

“I mostly buy stamps just because I like them,” she said. “I find them representative of art and history, and that’s one of the things I find interesting about them, but I mostly do it myself just because I enjoy looking at them, and that’s what I focus on – ones I like.”

Sleeth said she was amazed by the amount of effort, work and research that the attendees put into creating the displays.

“I voted for the Elvis stamps,” she said.

Some people might consider stamp-collecting to be a hobby out of fashion in modern times, or on college campuses, but it proves surprisingly resilient. It is a hobby that all ages can enjoy, without being expensive or time consuming.

The Champaign-Urbana Stamp Club meets monthly in the auditorium of the Urbana Free Library, 210 W. Green St., to discuss the latest business and share their interests.

“Nothing would please us more than seeing some young students interested in stamp collecting come check out one of our meetings,” Toft said.

“We certainly hope to see some interested new faces there,” Toft said.