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John Due, antiques collector and dealer, dies

John Due, antiques collector and dealer, dies
John Due was a collector and antiques dealer . (HANDOUT)

John Due, a worldly collector and antiques dealer who ferried soldiers to Omaha Beach on D-Day and hitchhiked across America to see the West, died May 20 at the historic plantation he lovingly restored in Howard County.

Mr. Due died of sepsis three weeks shy of his 96th birthday.

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An urbane and lifelong bachelor, he dressed in tweeds and spent his career traveling the East Coast as a salesman of the finest hand-crafted furniture. Mr. Due toured Europe and collected English secretaries, French demi-lunes and crystal girandoles to sell from his antiques store outside Frederick.

Though he darned his own socks and patched his own jackets, Mr. Due died a millionaire.

He left more than $1 million to the Johns Hopkins Peabody Institute and about $2 million to preserve the trove of antique books in the George Peabody Library, said Brad Clark, his accountant for four decades. Hundreds of rare opera and classical records that Mr. Due collected — some of which he found in Sicily during the war — will be donated to the music department at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Further, a conservation easement on his Clarksville estate will block the subdivision and development that Mr. Due so abhorred. He spent decades meticulously restoring the 34 acres and 19th Century manor house. He erected a walled English garden and doted over his roses. He cultivated a grape arbor; he restored the ice house and the artesian spring that fed his pond.

"You feel like you're walking onto the set of 'Downton Abbey,'" said Mr. Clark.

He arrived once to find Mr. Due barefoot in the pond, in his boxer shorts, clearing weeds. In the water a snapping turtle reared its head.

"This is a guy who is a millionaire and he's there getting his hands dirty," Mr. Clark said. "He had more energy than 10 people."

Born in Ellicott City to Elmer Due, an insurance agent, and Mary Miller, a homemaker, John Logan Due was the oldest of three children. He earned a degree in geology from the Johns Hopkins University in 1943 and followed his younger brother, Chris Due, into the Navy.

On June 6, 1944, Mr. Due captained a landing craft with orders to deliver a tank and infantrymen on Omaha Beach. Long after the war, he would tell his brother's grandson, Chris Blum, of the landing on D-Day.

A Nazi mortar crashed into the landing craft and ruptured both of Mr. Due's ear drums. Blood ran down the sides of his face; several men were killed. He ordered his landing craft back as a soldier hung wounded from the side. The young man was missing half his leg when Mr. Due pulled him in.

"He tied the tourniquet around the kid's leg and saved his life," said Mr. Blum, 37, of Vancouver.

The wounded soldier requested a cup of coffee. Mr. Due went below and found the pot still warm, though it felt like hours had passed in the fighting.

"It wasn't even long enough for the coffee to go cold," Mr. Blum said.

Mr. Due recovered his hearing and was discharged in 1950. Then he hitchhiked across the country in uniform, sleeping on park benches and greeted by grateful families.

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He returned to Maryland and began work as a traveling salesman for Statton Furniture Manufacturing Co., a family-owned wholesaler in Hagerstown. Soon he was traveling from New York to Texas selling fine cherry-wood furniture and 18th Century reproductions. He became the top salesman, selling more than all the other reps combined. Mr. Due remained with Statton through three generations of ownership.

In the late 1980s, he opened an antique shop on West Main Street in New Market and sold European furniture, porcelains and rugs for more than 20 years.

"It was the most beautiful antique shop with the highest quality stuff," Mr. Clark said.

Mr. Due emerged as an authority on antiques, someone sought out and consulted by other collectors; he developed loyal customers.

"If there was a discrepancy in terms of it wasn't delivered right, or something was damaged in delivery, he would always make it right," said Steve Batoff, his attorney for three decades. "The customer was always right. People say that, but he was really good at it."

His collection grew and filled his home. There were antique washstands, a collection of Civil War-era piggy banks. Handmade grandfather clocks filled the house with clamor upon each hour.

"Nothing was precious," said his nephew, John Sharpe, 57, of Los Angeles. "As kids, when we visited, we got to play with anything we wanted."

Mr. Due was gentlemanly, though opinionated, his nephew said. He possessed a dry humor and groused in later years that society was becoming crass. He filled his library with old books and studied French history. He took in rescue dogs, naming more than one "George." And he bought old townhouses in South Baltimore, restored them and rented them out.

He would spend "a fortune" on antiques, said his niece, Sharon Blum, 68, of Denver. And yet, he would turn his shirt collars when they wore out. He washed his own suits and hung them out to dry because he liked the way sunshine made them smell. He drank a glass of wine each night into his 90s.

His gift to the Peabody Institute exceeds $1.4 million — the founding donation by George Peabody — and so establishes Mr. Due among 21 benefactors in the George Peabody Society, including former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Over the years Mr. Due planted on his estate thousands of daffodils to bloom each April. He would invite friends to daffodil parties and serve mint juleps, but the parties ended as he aged.

Then three years ago, his nieces and nephews flew in from California, Denver and Hawaii. They set tables with wine and cheese, hired a cello player and knocked on his door: Surprise! They led Mr. Due out to what would be his last daffodil party there overlooking his beloved meadow of yellow flowers.

A memorial service will be held 10 a.m. June 6, the anniversary of D-Day, at the Emory United Methodist Church in Ellicott City.

He was preceded in death by his two younger siblings, Chris Due and Doris Sharpe. He is survived by 6 nieces and nephews, their children and his housekeeper of 20 years, Gladys Fernandez.

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