In Memoriam

In Memoriam: Don Van Court

For button folks Don was three people, though many more in life. It’s always odd that on someone’s passing we finally encounter all the people, interests and events in a person’s life.

The first person was the author of three volumes of transportation uniform button information. These books are the bible for any collector in this specialized area. Not just buttons though, but carefully researched “micro” histories of the companies that the buttons were made for, so carefully researched  you can learn quite a bit of railroad history with a single button in mind.

The second person was Don as National Button Society (NBS) President. Don needed to step in on the untimely death of Stefan Schiff and then fill his own term. Don brought his managerial and engineering experience to the office and I think some very well organized years for the NBS. I would not participate in the NBS at the level I do (media relations) if it weren’t for Don seeing a need to get the word out and have media folks who came to our shows have someone to explain and tour them around the show floor.

Don, not being a “general purpose” button collector who could spend all his time at a show or convention looking for buttons, would spend time with me talking about many things. I think his only “other button” was a lovely large Division I brass transportation button… a steam engine… presented to Don on his leaving the NBS presidency.

Conversations with Don would include the books and also how they came about and his adventures in collecting not only the buttons but the information needed to present them in the books. Don was able to visit and examine the records of Waterbury Button Company and talk to people from Scovill Button Company who had moved to Waterbury when Scovill was acquired by them. His research in Poor’s Manuals finding the parentage of the long succession of railroad companies resulted in the style of those “micro histories.” His training at the hands of the Alberts, particularly Lillian, honed writing skills for articles, his books and the report writing. That served him well in his career at AT&T and as an internationally known consultant in building management and maintenance.

The last area that we had in common was the love of railroading in general. Don was a frequent volunteer at a tourist railroad operation on theMorristownandErie. That was always good for a number of his stories. I recently learned that Don was a rail fan of an obscure railroad that  serviced the waterfront inHoboken. Googling “Hoboken Shore Railway” will take you to a web site replete with photos taken by Don when he attended Stevens Institute there inHoboken. There is also a set of rail fan oriented books called “The Next Station Will Be.” Don was instrumental in keeping this delightful series in print.

Together we always tried to submit awards to National that would let those few of us “play hard” with our collections. We frequently compared notes to maximize the fun, but not step on each other with our “clever” ideas.

Don gave many talks before the New Jersey State Button Society. I have a video recording that I made of Don discussing the process of writing a book at one of the NJSBS shows at the Union Fire Hall inTitusville. This was Don’s last contribution to our programs.

As I told Don’s sons, “I think I’m a better person for having known your father.”                                                                                                                 Jim Albanowski

When we lostDon Van Court, we lost one of the giants ofNew Jersey, as described in his program in 2001 at the 60th anniversary of NJSBS.  Joe Anderson and Dewy Albert were two others mentioned. Don was so modest; he didn’t even include himself on that list of giants. Well, we certainly knew differently. Not only was he our giant, he was a GIANT in the button collecting world, as well as the railroad community.

Not only did Don know buttons, he knew the history of the railroad companies and where their lines ran, having been a railroad fan most of his life, and a uniform button collector since the age of twelve.

As William J. Hentges wrote in his tribute to Don in the NBS February bulletin, “if they moved on wheels or rails, sailed the rivers, docked in our ocean port, flew over our country, and wore uniforms, Don knew them well.”

I first ran into Don at various button shows we did inNew Jersey and Pennsylvania. He was always on the prowl for transportation buttons.  When I became more involved in uniform buttons of all kinds, we started judging at Division II together at national conventions and state shows.

It was a pleasure to get to know him better, which is one of the benefits of judging with someone all day. He taught me to ‘covet’ buttons, not just judge them; and covet we did. When we judged railroad and transportation buttons in general, it would take some time just to do a few trays, because we would admire certain buttons, their rarity, and of course explain to the clerk why we liked them so much.

He was a wealth of information, and loved to share it verbally or through his three volumes of transportation uniform buttons…… a major, no, a” GIANT’ contribution to our hobby.                                                       Johnson  Frazier

Don Van Court was a very special warm and delightful man. Especially on our trips to NERBA driving together were so much fun. Don used to chuckle when we dressed in our costumes, especially when we escorted him into the room, one of us on each arm when he gave the talk on the Orient Express. We were like his second and third wives, making sure he took his vitamins and Gloria putting drops in his eye after his cataract operation. We will miss him and the twinkle in this eye. He was a friend indeed.                              Gloria Chazin and Anne Flood



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