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Political memorabilia a primary passion for Catonsville woman

Charlestown resident Ruth McCullough, 82, has saved buttons and bumper stickers from past presidential elections.

"I like Ike."

"We the People need Perot."

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"If I were 21, I'd vote for Kennedy."

The buttons on 82-year-old Ruth McCullough's vest rattled as she walked around her small apartment in Charlestown retirement community in Catonsville. She only gets the chance to show off her collection every four years, she said.

On top of a white tablecloth, she has laid out some political trinkets — a presidential ruler, five shot glasses, one for each of the past five inaugurations and a "God Bless Spiro Agnew" bumper sticker.

"He's not held in very high regard here in Maryland," McCullough said, holding it up. "That really gets people in a good humor."

Agnew was vice president to Richard Nixon but resigned after being investigated for corruption dating back to his days as Baltimore County executive and governor of Maryland.

But the main event of McCullough's was the white vest she was wearing, filled with the names of candidates spanning nearly a century.

McCullough, a former federal employee from Ellicott City, has been collecting buttons from gubernatorial, congressional and, primarily, presidential candidates since the 1970s. At last count, she had about 120 pieces, she said.

It's just fun to her — she doesn't favor one party or candidate over another.

"It's not partisan. It could be Democrat, Republican, communist, fascist, whatever," she said. "I'm an equal opportunity button collector."

She's just fascinated by the presidency, she said.

"When you think about it, they really lead ordinary lives as best they can," she said.

She's read books on the various presidents, and is also a big fan of visiting presidential libraries. Part of her presidential outfit is a red hat from the John. F Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Massachusetts.

"This one person has all this responsibility," she said. "Ordinary men, and women too, will rise to the occasion of what's needed at that time."

She doesn't remember what the first button she got was, she said, but it was sometime during the Nixon presidency. The buttons appealed to her because she wanted to save something political without taking up a lot of room.

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"It just gradually grew every election," she said. "I would be fascinated when the buttons came out."

Sometimes she'd make a donation to the parties to get a button, and as her friends and family saw her interest grow, they would also give her memorabilia.

She doesn't get the chance to wear her vest out often, but said she enjoys seeing people's reactions when she does. Some people say they want to rip the names off — some laugh.

"I just wear it when I'm going someplace where there's a group of people who have a sense of humor," she said.

Her outfit is topped off with a pair of red flashing light-up glasses.

She got the glasses for $6, she said.

"I've gotten more than $6 worth of fun out of them," she said.

The collection

The buttons range in size and age as well as political party. Her oldest button is from the 1924 campaign of Republican Calvin Coolidge and running mate Brig. Gen. Charles Dawes. Coolidge won that election.

The largest is a "LBJ for the USA" pin the size of a dinner plate. Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat, won the 1964 election, becoming the country's 36th president.

She also has some losers on her vest — two from the 1976 Democratic primary election. On a white button in blue letters was former astronaut John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, who sought the vice presidential nomination. On a blue button written in white was Mo Udall, a former basketball player who sought the presidential nomination.

Both were longtime members of Congress.

Her favorite pins were found in an abandoned fireplace by a family member, she said. Builders tore down a wall and exposed an old mantle where workers found six small brass elephant head pins, each with the word "Willkie," on them, referring to the 1940 Republican nominee Wendell Willkie. She got two of those.

"I think they are so cute because they're so different," she said.

She has a "Remember elephants eat peanuts" button from 1978, two years after former peanut farmer Jimmy Carter won the 1976 presidential election.

She has a Bill Clinton and Al Gore victory pin from 1992 on her back. Next to it is a button from Gore's failed 2000 campaign with Joe Lieberman.

On each shoulder she has a large buttons with the candidates from 2008. Vice President Biden and President Barack Obama are on a blue button on he left shoulder, and Republican candidates John McCain and Sarah Palin are on a red button on her right shoulder.

Living history

She has also been following the 2016 primary race, she said — it's one of the most interesting campaign seasons she's seen.

"It's just fascinating. I wouldn't say I like it or dislike it," she said of the campaign process.

Over the years she has voted for both parties, she said. She doesn't know which candidate she'll vote for this year.

One of her items is a ruler with the portraits of every president up to Obama on the back.

"By January, this will be a collectible because there will be another person after Obama," she said. "They'll have to make the ruler for 13, I guess, instead of 12."

She's enjoying the election, she said, because she is living through a part of history. This spring the parties will choose their candidates, and then those winners will campaign until the general election.

"I can enjoy this until November," McCullough said.

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