When John McCrea moved to our house, he did not come alone. He brought with him a Filipino steward named Pique, who had worked for him since his navy days, and 17 coffin-size wooden boxes of papers, uniforms, and memorabilia. All took up residence in our cellar, Pique in a renovated space in the old laundry; the boxes, in stacks on the cellar floor.
As a collector and keeper of stuff, John fit right into our family. None of the Tobeys ever threw anything out. This was forcefully brought home to me when, in my 40s, I helped empty our Chestnut Hill house before it was sold. In the attic, I was startled to discover my old toilet training equipment and the birdcage that was home to our canary, who died when I was ten. Still, when it came to saving papers and photographs, the Tobeys were amateurs compared with John.
John was an avid reader of correspondence, newspapers and magazines. When he found things of interest, he would pass them on to Mother to read. If he wanted her to return an item to him, he wrote on it in his compact but powerful script, “Keep.” If the item was particularly precious, he wrote something like “Keep, keep and keep!” These treasures accumulated in piles in his study, and in time some migrated to the wooden boxes.
During John’s lifetime, I had nothing to do with the boxes. I was dimly aware that when John dictated his memoirs, he referred to papers from the boxes to jog and supplement his remarkable memory. No doubt this contributed to the accuracy and completeness of his recollections. I knew that some of the navy materials were classified, and that he had had them de-classified before he used them. Beyond that I don’t know what papers he worked with.
After John’s death, my husband Ken and I undertook to sort through the papers in the boxes. The uniforms, decorations, and swords had long since been distributed. The boxes were a jumble, but what a fascinating experience it was to explore them. There were childhood drawings by, and letters from, his daughters, coins, folders of speeches, and reams of correspondence from his navy and John Hancock careers. We noted famous names in the correspondence files, but we didn’t have time to read, just to sort.
The photographs made the biggest impression. There were thousands of them, collected by John or sent to him by friends. There were pictures of what appeared to be German warships at the surrender of the German navy after WWI. There were shots in unusual formats of other unidentified ships and naval officers of ancient vintage. More modern pictures showed trips with FDR and the launch and early days of USS Iowa. We even found pictures of John with President Harry S. Truman and with a very youthful John F. Kennedy. As musicians, we were intrigued to find photos of conductors Andre Kostelanetz and Arthur Fiedler and singer Lily Pons, but there was no explanation of why John came to be photographed with them. While our photographic tour left more questions than answers, I came away with a powerful sense of the breadth of John’s experience and the importance of his career.
Postscript: We boxed up the papers and gave them to the Naval Historical Foundation. Some years later I was surprised to discover they had been neatly organized, cataloged, and transferred to the Manuscript Room of the Library of Congress. I kept the photos, at least for now. After all, I am a Tobey.