“This club will prevail for the benefit of each and all and the expense of none.”
Dick McChesney still gets choked up when he thinks about that quote, which he penned about 20 years ago. For 42 of his 82 years, he has been a member and leader of The Coca-Cola Collectors Club. Thus the club has been part of him.
The Coca-Cola Collectors Club gathers annually for a convention at various locations across the U.S. McChesney has attended every single one. In his view, the purpose of the club is to build camaraderie more so than your collection.
“I think I predicated my whole career in Coke-collecting on paying less attention to what something’s worth or how much my collection is worth, as opposed to just sharing my knowledge and sharing extras I have at reasonable prices – really being a legitimate club member by recognizing that we’re all in this together,” he said.
“This isn’t a game of who has the most.”
A Hobby Rooted in Hard Work
What started as a job at age 13 became a lifelong passion, and a way to stay connected to friends made along the way. McChesney sorted bottles for the Home Beverage Company of Minneapolis, eventually taking over the business and transforming it from home deliveries to small office deliveries.
“It started with the company saying, ‘we can’t get people to drink Coke at home’,” he explained. “That’s my day job. I’ve had it for 69 years.”
When he started, a case of Coca-Cola cost $1. He would save a dollar from every paycheck to buy a case for himself, fending off his brother and cousin so he could savor his hard-earned refreshment.
Like most fellow collectors, McChesney fell into the hobby.
“I just did it to promote beverages, and I loved the Coca-Cola advertising,” McChesney recalled. “It never occurred to me that anybody did that. I bought a lot of things through the antique trader out of Des Moines.”
Creating the Club and Early Treasure Hunting
It was through his antique hobby that he discovered other collectors who started sending him lists of items for sale. He answered an ad asking if anyone else collected Coca-Cola items.
“They all had lists with about 30, 40, 50 items, and you’d say, ‘I’ll have that and two of these.’ I wanted to meet these people. I wanted to see what they looked like and know what Coke collectors were about.”
In 1975, the club held its first convention for about 60 people in Atlanta most of whom hailed from the south (this year’s convention had about 700 from all over the U.S. and Canada). Attendees decided it was successful and planned another event the following year in Elizabethtown, Ky., where McChesney was elected club president.
He went on to host a convention in Minnesota in 1980, established a chapter of the club and served as president. He attended local conventions in Wisconsin and Iowa.
Collecting methodology was not always precise for McChesney.
“For the first 10 or 12 years, if it had the word Coca-Cola on it, I just bought it automatically,” he said. “But there were some things which were tough and you figured you’d never get to own those cause they’re so rare.”
He kept his eye out for a favorite – a turn-of-the-century stained glass chandelier typically displayed in drug stores – and about 35 years ago, he bought one. It has been hanging above his dining room table ever since.
During a family trip to South Dakota, he bought a 1937 Coca-Cola tray for $20. The tray is not in mint condition, but he doesn’t care. It still hangs on his wall because the memory makes it priceless.
Becoming a Brand Ambassador
McChesney’s aptitude and positive attitude have been recognized by his fellow club members and by The Coca-Cola Company. In 1999, he was asked by the archivist of The Coca-Cola Company at the time, Phil Mooney, to travel to the Middle East for 10 days to represent the club and act as an ambassador of the company.
McChesney remembered his conversation with Mooney like this: “He says, ‘how would you like to talk about Coke collecting in a couple cities?’
And I said, ‘Well, what cities are you talking about?’ I was in Minneapolis and was thinking I’d go to Mankato or Duluth or something.
He said, ‘Well you would land in Jeddah’ – Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and I had never been out of the country.
I said, ‘That’s incredible. I don’t know how to answer you.’
And he said, ‘Well I want you to get a move on – get your passport and we’ll do the rest.’”
During his trip, McChesney visited local bottling plants, conducted tours of grocery stores, and met with the press.
“The beauty of it was that I was considered the celebrity all the time I was there because I was the president of the Coca-Cola Collectors Club," he recalled. "It was a great success. I pinch myself – did I really do that?”
That wasn’t the end of McChesney’s role as a Coca-Cola spokesperson. The Coca-Cola Archives loaned 15 Santa Claus paintings to the Swedish Institute in his hometown of Minneapolis. Artist Haddon Sundblom created the iconic Coca-Cola Santa in 1931, which eventually became the image people around the world recognized as jolly old Saint Nick. The exhibit highlight was to be a presentation by Mooney, but a blustery storm prevented him from leaving Atlanta. There was no cancelling the special event, as the museum had been inviting people for two and a half months.
Once again, McChesney came to the rescue.
Even after representing the club’s namesake, leading his local chapter and the club at large, giving talks to Lions, Kiwanis and antique clubs, and distributing Coca-Cola products for nearly seven decades as his day job, McChesney doesn’t consider himself an expert. Instead, he credits collectors who are more academic about their artifacts, visiting the Library of Congress and writing about the history of various pieces.
And he stands by his belief that the club is more about kinship than collections.
“We don’t exist for 42 years because everybody’s out to take everybody else. It’s as simple as that.”
His passion for collecting artifacts and connecting with other Coca-Cola fans is part of his identity in his local community and that of the global Coca-Cola community.
“That’s one of the keys to the club. It isn’t always just about things. It’s about relationships, and renewing those once a year,” he said. “There’s a lot of bonus points in having met people belonging to a club.”
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