Varna man collects ‘second-hand’ handshakes

By The Associated Press

VARNA, Ill. – How is it possible that an 80-year-old man shook the hand of Geronimo, a famous Native American who died in 1909?

Just ask Bill Kemnitz. He’ll explain it in detail. Kemnitz is a collector of handshakes. But before explaining how his hobby works, Kemnitz, during an interview in his Varna home, said he had to explain first how he came up with the idea for his collection.

Kemnitz, who plays the marimba, was asked when he was 14 in 1941 to perform with the largest marimba orchestra ever assembled at Soldier Field in Chicago.

The conductor was Claire Omar Musser, who was on the faculty of the Northwestern University Music School. Musser and his wife became friends with the Kemnitz family and spent several weekends at their farm near Varna during World War II.

“On a visit in August of 1943, he (Musser) asked me if I would like to shake the hand that shook the hand that shook the hand of Adolf Hitler,” Kemnitz recalled. “I didn’t quite follow that, so I asked him to repeat it. He said that while on a tour of Britain with his marimba orchestra, he had met Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who had met with Hitler during the Munich crisis.

Kemnitz willingly accepted the handshake.

“That was the first time I had ever heard about anything like that,” he said. “It was like he gave me Hitler’s handshake.”

Kemnitz said he forgot about the incident until a visit to his parents in the 1970s. An old family friend stopped by to see his parents.

“I had just met Shirley Cothran, Miss America of 1975,” Kemnitz explained. “I asked Dick, our old friend, if he would like to receive the handshake of Miss America. He said ‘yes’ and immediately came over to me to receive the handshake.

“After he had returned to his seat, he asked me if I would like the handshake of Charles Lindbergh, and I naturally accepted.”

The family friend had met Lindbergh when the aviator landed his mailplane, which was experiencing a problem, in a nearby field. Lindbergh had to spend the night with them at their farmhouse.

“That’s what pulled the trigger for me,” Kemnitz said. “I thought it would be a good idea to write down the names of (famous) people with whom I had shaken hands.”

Then, thinking about getting the second-hand handshake of Lindbergh through an old friend, Kemnitz decided to make up a list of second-hand and ‘third-hand’ handshakes. When Kemnitz retired to Varna in 1989, he began looking for handshakes in this area to add to his list.

“I saw a story in the Peoria paper about a lady who was going to celebrate her 100th birthday. When she was six, she had shaken hands with the famous Indian chief, Geronimo, in his jail cell in Lawton, Okla.,” he said.

Kemnitz didn’t actually contact the lady until the following year when he saw in the paper she had turned 101. And yes, he ended up shaking her hand.