Ross Kelbaugh, a former history and social studies teacher in Catonsville schools, had 30 years of training before he became an appraiser for Maryland Public Television’s “Chesapeake Collectibles” series.
He says one skill he polished over the decades before retiring in 2001 has been key to his success as a TV personality for the past seven years: knowing how to engage his audience—be it students or TV viewers.
“I was good at standing up in front of groups of people and talking about old stuff,” said Kelbaugh, 69, who taught at Catonsville Junior High from 1971 to 1982 and Catonsville High School from 1982 to 2001. “People like stories. When you lose the connection to the stories, that’s when history becomes boring.”
He also incorporated old letters and other artifacts into his history lessons as a teacher.
“Everybody likes old stuff. It’s all about how you engage people, [and using] that as a springboard for teaching,” he said. “It’s as simple as that.”
Kelbaugh appeared in the show’s first season in 2011 as a guest on the program. He came with his own artifact: a “freedom letter” that belonged to a black woman named Anna Mathews, who was “about 25 years” old, according to the document, dated from 1831.
Mathews would have had to carry that document with her to prove she was a free woman living in Anne Arundel County, Kelbaugh said.
The production team liked Kelbaugh so much that they brought him on as a Maryland expert and evaluator. Now, he’s gearing up for the show’s ninth season, and his eighth with the program.
Since joining “Chesapeake Collectibles,” he’s evaluated a collection of autographs from baseball players, including Babe Ruth, that was sold at auction for $125,000; a dinner menu that was signed at the bottom by Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and a signed photograph of Gen. George Patton.
During the ninth season’s filming weekend scheduled for Aug. 18-19 at the Turf Valley Resort in Ellicott City, to which the public can register to bring items for evaluation, Kelbaugh estimates he’ll speak with more than 100 people as one of the show’s 17 appraisers.
“I deal with a lot of people, a lot of objects [while filming],” Kelbaugh said. “I have to be able to do research if needed … I have to be able to do that on the fly, while I have a line of people in front of my table.”
Kelbaugh said that, if necessary, he uses a laptop computer to access different databases while initially evaluating items. If a person and their item are chosen for a TV appearance, they move to a different filming location and typically do not show the research happening on the program.
Those who have items or artifacts they want to get assessed during the show’s filming weekend must register by Aug. 6, at http://www.mpt.org/programs/chesapeakecollectibles/register/.
Registrants can pay an up-front cost of $125 for a guarantee to get three items evaluated, or they can submit a photo of an item online, along with a description, for a chance at a free assessment.
Not everyone who attends the event will be selected to appear on the show; the production team and the appraisers work together to decide which people and which items would make the most engaging program.
Shows ‘real reverence’
Some of his former students described Kelbaugh as a “hippie” in the classroom. Carlethea Norris, who lives in Beechfield just outside Catonsville, and graduated from Catonsville High School in 1976, said he “left a lasting impression” and kept students interested in history by incorporating personal stories and historic artifacts into his lessons.
Jay Boarman, who graduated in 1985, said Kelbaugh was “really dedicated” to his job and to engaging students in the classroom.
“He wasn’t there for a paycheck, you could tell,” said Boarman, of Catonsville.
Kelbaugh said he really liked working in the Catonsville community.
“It was really a special place for me. I was there long enough that I was teaching the children of children I had taught earlier,” Kelbaugh said. “I loved being a Catonsville Comet. I’ll always be a Comet.”
The show is the most popular original program on Maryland Public Television, according to Michael MacFee, a communications associate with the organization. MacFee did not provide an estimate for the number of viewers.
Susanne Stahley, a senior producer with Maryland Public Television, said Kelbaugh has a “real reverence” for the people and stories behind each object that he evaluates.
“He does have a very methodical way of describing things, which is sort of off the cuff organized, which not everybody can do,” Stahley said. “He can present the background and summarize it and then tell you the salient detail, which brings it alive.”
In addition to appraising, evaluating and teaching, Kelbaugh has curated museum exhibits and published more than a half-dozen works, including the popular and out-of-print “Maryland's Civil War Photographs: The Sesquicentennial Collection.”
His personal collection includes “thousands” of photographs, he said. His interest in Civil War history and photography started when he was young.
He read a couple of stories in magazines about a photographer who was re-creating Civil War photographs to mark the conflict’s centennial in the 1960s.
“That really caught my attention,” he said.
Since then, Kelbaugh said, he’s been a lifelong collector of historic artifacts and photographs. In the early 1970s, Kelbaugh said he realized no collectors or historians had started to seriously and actively collect early American photography, so he decided to carve out his niche.
“I was on the hunt for that what was most unique and important, and that’s what my collections are now,” he said.
What makes Kelbaugh work well on television, Stahley said, is his ability to speak confidently and quickly about items he’s evaluating and that he brings “his own engagement and respect for the people and the acts of heroism” behind the historic artifacts.
When he started working with Maryland Public Television, the only thing that really felt new was “getting used to doing it in front of the camera.”
When considering items for television appearances, Kelbaugh said he looks at two factors: the potential monetary value of the item and the educational value of discussing it.
Mike Hipsley, a Catonsville High School Class of 1994 graduate, said he watches Kelbaugh on the show “all the time.” Hipsley said that, as a teacher, Kelbaugh could take “dry” subjects and turn them interesting by making them more human.
“He would take it and there wasn’t a single incident where he didn’t have some kind of a personal story,” said Hipsley, of Westminster.
Part of that, he said, was bringing in historic items like letters or photographs. Hipsley said photographs from the American Civil War particularly stand out in his memory.
“He just had a way of helping students see a broader, bigger and more human picture,” Hipsley said of Kelbaugh.
Hipsley would join Kelbaugh as a teacher at Catonsville High School from 1999 until Kelbaugh retired.
“His ear was always open, he always had insights into how I could do things better,” Hispley said.