JACKMAN — It’s been more than 40 years since former history teacher David Leigh, inspired by a friend’s large collection of Time and Newsweek magazines, started a project that he hoped would help rural students make connections to the outside world.

Leigh, now 73 and retired, was a teacher at the Forest Hills Consolidated School in 1972 when he started assigning students magazine covers and tasking them with tracking down the person on the cover — often a person of prominence or historical importance — and asking the person to sign the cover.

Over several years at five schools in Maine, the project has generated a collection of 1,100 signed Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated magazine covers that continue to serve as educational tools.

“It was a connection to the broader world,” said Leigh, now of Belgrade. “We have covers from 23 different nations, and I think there’s a permanent marker in (students’) memories from which they can expand on that.”

The project recently received renewed attention at the Forest Hills school following the canonization of Mother Teresa, the Catholic nun known for her work helping India’s poor, whose signature on the cover of Time magazine is one of about 150 signed magazine covers at the Jackman school. The designation makes items touched by the woman now known to the Catholic Church as Saint Teresa of Calcutta, such as the magazine cover, also considered relics by the Roman Catholic Church.

“Love others as God loves you. God bless you,” Mother Teresa wrote along with her signature on the cover of Time. She also sent a typed letter saying she would pray for the school’s students and a small prayer card.

Mother Teresa’s Time magazine cover from December 1975 is one of over 100 signed magazine covers at the Jackman school, while Leigh has retained a large number of the other covers he assigned to students while working at Messalonskee High School in Oakland, Machias Memorial High School, Mt. Blue High School in Farmington and Mattanawcook Academy in Lincoln.

“I remembered she was one of the people who we had a cover for, so I brought it out,” said current Forest Hills history teacher Ami Amero, who dug up the Mother Teresa cover for a recent current events discussion. “I thought it was just a nice sentiment.”

Other covers at the school include those of actress Diane Keaton, professional golfer Jack Nicklaus, former president Jimmy Carter and King Hussein of Jordan. All of those covers are signed.

In his personal collection, Leigh also has a signed Time magazine cover from Donald Trump, now the Republican presidential nominee, that also says “Best Wishes” on an image of his hand.

SIGNED, DELIVERED

During his more than 30 years as an educator, Leigh said, he would let students select the covers they were interested in and then write to the person asking for a signature. The hope was always for a personal connection that would help students to understand current events better as they evolved, he said.

The project was met with varying degrees of success. For the most part, students did get responses, even if sometimes the response didn’t include the signature they asked for.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a Russian novelist and outspoken critic of communism, for example, returned the cover along with a letter from his assistant explaining that he did not give autographs.

“There are endless requests and since he would never deceive people (as most prominent men do) by having somebody else sign on his behalf, if he started he would be doing nothing but inscribing!” wrote Solzhenitsyn’s assistant, Irina Alberti.

Leigh said there’s no way of knowing how many of the signatures are authentic, though he believes a good portion of them are, including Donald Trump’s.

“I know some are not,” he said. “Sometimes, too, you say people shouldn’t be taking their time out to do this.”

Leigh believes Trump’s signature is authentic — “it’s very up and down, like an EKG” — but also questioned how much the signature might be worth, even if Trump is elected president.

“He’s doing so many (signatures) right now, on hats, shirts and everything else, that I don’t know,” Leigh said. “I think as far as value, the Mother Teresa is way up there; so is James Earl Ray.”

Ray, convicted of assassinating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., signed the June 1977 cover of Newsweek on which he appeared and also wrote a note to the students in Jackman: “I don’t see the honor.”

“It was really a snarly comment,” Leigh said. “But the project generated some very interesting responses, and that’s what I was hoping for.”

Leigh retired in 2003, marking the last time he spearheaded the magazine project in schools. He still occasionally sends off magazines on his own for his personal collection. The last one he received back with a signature was from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell a few years ago.

His collection of past presidents includes Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush. George Bush and Laura Bush are also in the collection, but they sent pre-signed photographs in response, rather than sign the magazine covers.

Leigh said he refrains from writing to presidents while they are still in office and has not yet solicited Barrack Obama for his signature. He also hasn’t written to Hillary or Bill Clinton and said, “I’m waiting for them to retire, but they just won’t.”

Today, he said, he continues to use the magazine covers in lectures and educational events. He also continues to solicit signatures, though the rate of responses has slowed, something he attributes to the rise of online marketplace eBay.

“The return is much lower. I think because the personalities realize if they do sign it this week, then next week that same cover could be on eBay,” Leigh said.

WHOLE NEW WORLD

Asked if the project would be relevant for today’s students, both Amero and Leigh hesitated.

In today’s digital world, Amero said, students are less inclined to read magazines and teachers use them less in the classroom. “I also think the covers have changed,” she said. “For example, one recent cover featured Ebola workers. That’s something that’s very general, so who would you send a letter to?”

Few students at Forest Hills seem to have thought much about the covers today, although several are on display at the school’s library. For some members of the community, though, they continue to be reminders of a connection to the outside world and life in the pre-digital era.

The population of Jackman is about 860, and 172 students attend Forest Hills school.

Babe Edgar, a former secretary who has stayed involved in maintaining the collection, said the project was a good lesson in the research process for students and also taught them the value of persistence.

“It really wasn’t a ‘you have to do this’ thing. It was just a good idea and a good learning experience,” Edgar said. “Of course, the more we got into it and the more covers we got, the more encouraged they got. I think it was just good to feel like they succeeded in something.”

Terry Crawford, a speech and language pathology assistant at Forest Hills, said her husband, Laney, was a student in Leigh’s class and still talks about the project, though she couldn’t recall whose signature he had been required to get.

“Living in a rural town like Jackman, who would think that Mother Teresa would send something to you?” Crawford said. “This was before the internet, and it just opened up a whole new world (to students).”

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

[email protected]

Twitter: @rachel_ohm


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