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Photograph by Eric A. Carlson

Notes From the Underbelly

Leonard McKay's Memorabilia

By Eric A. Carlson

"I thought I was going to jail forever."

--Leonard McKay (after accidentally KO'ing an Australian policeman)

JOLLY CAPTAIN BRIGGS stands guard in front of Leonard McKay's tiny shop, Memorabilia of San Jose, at 250 West St. John St. (The original redwood Captain Briggs graced San Jose cigar store sidewalks from 1872 to 1936.) Leonard sometimes laments the name of his business, "Memorabilia is too long and nobody can spell it." And the location, a gnat's ass from being under Highway 87, is not calculated for foot traffic. "I've only had one customer in two weeks, and that was a burglar," he quipped.

Leonard was born in San Jose on October 21, 1921. The family moved to Los Gatos shortly thereafter. While attending Los Gatos High School, he sought out and interviewed John Steinbeck. After reading the interview to his class, his teacher snatched the paper from his hand and tore it into shreds. Many Californians, during the Depression, were not happy with writers who championed the cause of "Oakies" and "Arkies"--who were seen as invaders. Leonard was asked to visit the Dean of Discipline for a pep talk on California patriotism. Not one to shy from controversial themes, Leonard's next book report was on the Lupin Lodge Nudist Camp. Once again, his report became confetti.

During World War II Leonard was a liaison pilot for artillery observation. After the war he worked for Pan American Air before joining the family business in 1953. Smith & McKay Printing had come about in 1919, in the annex of the old St. James Hotel--a collaboration of Leonard's step-grandfather, grandmother and father. The current location, 96 Almaden Blvd., faces St. John on one side. Dave McKay, Leonard's son, continues in the family tradition.

Leonard has written three books on local history and published 14. His contributions to San Jose are more than can be described in this short column, but include receiving the Outstanding Citizen of San Jose award in 1979 for his work on the Peralta Adobe and Pellier Park. Poor old Pellier Park. Leonard's face scrunches up a bit when you mention it. He put a lot of heart into that project--only to see it turn to rack and ruin.

In 1998, while reading the immensely entertaining A Postcard History of San Jose, by Leonard McKay and Nestor Wahlberg, I noticed a phone number and address listed on page ii, for a store named Memorabilia of San Jose. I drove downtown for a visit and a veritable El Dorado lay in wait for me ... of things San Jose and historical. Although Leonard has sold off many of his history tomes, there are still poignant San Jose postcards to thumb through and various other historical gems to gawk upon. And Leonard himself. Memorabilia specializes in book repair, especially bibles.

Recently, Leonard regaled me with an amazing story of a trip to Australia. His wife's purse had come up missing in a Sydney restaurant, and as Leonard dutifully wended his way toward a police station to file a report, he was lovingly accosted by a drunken Australian in search of a boon companion. The man took hold of Leonard and commenced dragging him into a pub (Leonard is a pretty big guy to be dragging around). In the act of resisting, Leonard's arm swung backward and struck a Sydney policeman, knocking the officer to the ground and nearly rendering him unconscious. Leonard recounted that as he and another officer were lifting the stricken man to his feet, the drunk gamely continued pulling Leonard, and the two officers, toward the pub door. When an Australian wants to have fun, there is no stopping him.

Final Note No. 1: Leonard is currently married to Harriet, his third wife. Naomi, Leonard's second wife, used to say, "Leonard can't tell a simple story." Leonard does go into a bit of detail when answering questions, often wanting to go back in time to root causes. Before he is done answering, you may have forgotten what your question was. Final Note No. 2: Whether Leonard bears some resemblance to Jolly Captain Briggs ... I cannot say.

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From the January 4-10, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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