November 2016 has been a tough month for many members of ALPCA. Long-time member and great guy Dave Kuehn, a guru of all things Connecticut, passed away on the 1st of the month. Porcelain collector and “good ole Georgia boy” Eugene Gardner, another nice fellow whose collection is legendary, passed away on the 13th. But the loss that hits me hard personally is that of Ontario collector Bob Cornelius, also a long time ALPCA member, and a very good friend of mine.
I suppose it’s appropriate that I should be writing about Bob, since he was a regular reader of this column. But I write about him now, not out of duty, but out of friendship and grief. This column, My 2 Cents, doesn’t have scads of loyal readers that I know of, but I’ve enjoyed writing it for the past nineteen years. When I debuted the column, I didn’t know that Bob would be out there. But he did read it, and did so regularly. When our annual plate meets in Ontario became a regular occurrence, the stories I wrote are what drew Bob and I together, initially. But let’s start at the true beginning:
Bob was just shy of his tenth birthday at the time his father bought a new car, in December of 1948. Plates were issued annually back then, and the 1949 plates had not yet made their way into the local licencing offices of Ontario, so the car received a pair of late-issue '48s. The car wore the plates for just a few weeks before they were removed in favour of new '49 plates. Bob’s father was about to throw away the near-mint '48s, but young Bob couldn’t stand to see a new plate tossed into the garbage, so he asked his father to hang the ’48 plates on the garage wall. And thus, a collector was born. They would be the first of many plates that Bob would save over the ensuing years.
Later, in the spring of 1970, history was being made. The Beatles broke up after a tumultuous stint of re-writing the rules of rock and roll. Oldsmobile was manufacturing the best rocket-powered Cutlasses it would ever make. Apollo 13 embarked on and returned from its fateful mission to the moon, being recognized as a “successful failure.” And, a 30-year-old teacher from St. Catharines, Ontario, named Robert Donald Cornelius, joined the Automobile License Plate Collectors’ Association.
Bob’s membership was announced in the June 1970 edition of the ALPCA Newsletter; his assigned membership number was 1075. Bob enjoyed collecting plates from Ontario with interesting numbers, as well as other plates from around the world. At the time he joined the club, Bob was still in the early years of his professional career as a high school math teacher. He had graduated from Althouse College in London, Ontario in the early 1960s. In those days, Althouse was an independent college that was affiliated with the nearby University of Western Ontario. Althouse would eventually go on to formally join UWO as its faculty of education. (I myself am a UWO graduate, and I lived for a few years in the neighbourhood immediately surrounding Althouse.)
When Ontario began its then-new ABC-123 passenger plate format in 1973, there wasn’t a personalized plate program as we know it today. Instead, Ontario offered its Own Choice Plate program, wherein a motorist could order his or her choice of plate, as long as it fit within the ABC-123 format. Bob, of course, was interested in acquiring a BOB plate for his own car, but there was just one problem: In order to furnish enough new plates to all the plate-issuing offices, Ontario had gone ahead and mass-produced a large amount plates, running from AAA all the way to HER. This meant that the BOB series had already been produced and distributed to an issuing office. Bob quickly got on the telephone and made some inquiries, and found that the entire BOB allocation, from BOB-001 to BOB-999, had been sent to the issuing office in The Kingsway, an affluent neighbourhood in West Toronto (just a few blocks north of the less-affluent neighbourhood of Stonegate, where my father grew up). Here’s Bob, in his own words, telling me the story of how he acquired his BOB plates:
"A little history on my BOB-303 plate: Around the time you were born, I will tell you what I was doing to get this plate. As far as I remember, the series BOB was a regular issue and I had tracked it down to a downtown Toronto issuing office. I paid a visit to that office and asked the operator if I would be able to get a set of those BOB plates for my car, since my name was Bob. He was quite agreeable, so I pushed my luck a little further and said I had two friends back in St. Catharines named Bob - and could I get a set each for them? To my surprise, he said yes, so I got BOB-242 for one friend and BOB-272 for the other - these numbers were close to mine, so I could pick them up at the same time. The own-choice program was launched in 1973 for a fee of $25, and was restricted to three letters and three numbers, so I was surprised to see BOB as a regular issue! I guess I saved the extra cost… The plate I brought to Acton had a '76 sticker on the '73 base plate and I had those plates on a 1970 Cutlass Supreme 2 door hardtop. My friends were delighted to get their BOB plates!"
About ten years later, when Ontario finally woke up and allowed motorists to select their choice of any combination between two and six characters, Bob had heard that news and made sure he was one of the first to place an order. Bob always liked low and repeating numbers, and he took the best from both worlds by selecting “111” as his new plate number, which he ordered in September 1983. When Bob received them, he noted that they were made of aluminum and given a reflective treatment, which was a new development in Ontario plate manufacture at the time. Bob loved those plates, and eventually re-ordered the number on a newer base plate so he could keep the old ones for his collection (as so many of us have also done).
Years ago, Bob had teamed up with fellow Ontario collectors John Rubick and the late John Craig to hold a swap meet in Thorold, but this meet had discontinued by the time I joined ALPCA in 1995, and there were no regular swap meets in Ontario for a number of years. The present local Ontario plate collectors’ swap meets were started in 2003, with the town of Acton hosting in the spring, and the city of St. Catharines hosting in the fall. It was about this time that I first met Bob. He had been reading My 2 Cents online and graciously remarked to me about how much he enjoyed it. Bob and I had a few things in common. We were UWO alumni. We were both teachers by profession. We both loved the mathematical intricacies of the plate numbers we would see. We both got a kick out of seeing repeating numbers on plates, and we strove to collect them when possible. Ditto for low / short number combinations. And so began our semi-annual “show and tell” ritual, where Bob would bring some neat plate for me to see and photograph. Sometimes it would be a repeating number from his collection, sometimes a low number, sometimes an odd international plate, and sometimes an odd plate from within Ontario. My favourite "show and tell" was when we arranged to pose with our respective "BOB" and "JON" plates. I forgot mine at home during Grimsby 2015, so we posed anyway, and I photoshopped mine in. We did it properly six months later in Acton, but the lighting was poor and the pictures didn't quite turn out, so it's an irony that the photoshopped version is actually the best one! Talking at length with Bob was always a pleasure, and it was a further pleasure to photograph the plate he’d brought, and then chronicle our chats in this column. All the plates shown here are Bob’s, as photographed by me over the years.
In 2009, I made the jump into classic car ownership, and purchased my ’71 Beetle, known as Greta. I chronicled the story of Greta’s purchase, certification and YOM plates in My 2 Cents. Greta wears 1971 Ontario plates, with a shorter five-character serial. Bob saw the pictures, and just for fun, he brought a series of low-numbered 1971 plates to Grimsby for show-and-tell. He had numbers 1002, 1004, 1008, 1012 and 1020. I had fun photographing all those plates in one spot!
Family was always important to Bob. At the 2010 edition of the Acton meet, Bob gave me some hearty congratulations on becoming a father for a second time: My wife and I had recently welcomed our baby son into the world back in January. I brought my four-year-old daughter to Acton that year, and Bob thought it was really neat. She sat at my trade table, colouring and watching a DVD, pretty much oblivious to all the activity going on around her. Ever since then, Bob would ask how my kids were doing every time we would reunite at a meet. Bob wasn’t just engaging in idle chit-chat… he shared in the joyous moments as I would recount them. Later on, in April 2013, it was Bob’s turn to announce a new arrival within his own family. Bob’s first grandchild, a boy, had been born just before the Acton meet. Although Bob didn’t attend Acton that spring, he was ecstatic when he e-mailed me afterward… the whole family was “on cloud nine with buttons popping,” as Bob put it. He happily shared the news in person with all of our mutual friends in Grimsby later that year. Bob happily brought his wife Barbara to our meets from time to time, and also introduced me to his son, Bob Jr. It was a pleasure to see them.
Bob and I would e-mail each other from time to time about plate stickers, or letter combinations, or to discuss details about the plates he had shared at the most recent meet. I still have some of his messages. He was always very gracious and eloquent. He had a sharp memory when it came to his plates. We were discussing the unusual manufacture of his 1943 fibreboard bicycle plate from St. Catharines, and I was comparing it to metal 1943 bike plates of other Ontario cities. He made his 1943 plate all the more interesting when he recalled that a fellow teacher had given it and a 1942 bike plate to him during his first years of teaching at Lakeport Secondary School in St. Catharines. Bob even remembered the name of the teacher who had given the plate to him (John Park).
When Bob wasn’t enjoying his plate collection, he was fishing, travelling with Barbara, and later on, enjoying grandfatherhood. He was a man with a rich family life, full of love and respect for those around him, freely telling his friends why they were important to him, and how much he enjoyed his time with them.
I hadn’t heard from Bob over e-mail in the summer leading up to the Grimsby meet in 2016, but I paid no mind. I now help organize Grimsby, and as the meet approached, I e-mailed reminders to the usual suspects as to the date, time and venue. I had become accustomed to Bob saying hello in reply, or wondering what “theme” to try for our show-and-tell ritual, but there was no reply. I was going to send him a message to ask him to bring some stuff from his trade stock, but I had a hectic week and forgot to ask. No matter, I thought. I’ll catch up with him on Saturday.
The Grimsby meet started on that Saturday morning of October 29th, and the hall was pretty much full by eight o’clock, but Bob hadn’t yet arrived. It was then that one of Bob’s oldest collecting friends, John Rubick, asked me to sit next to him with a pencil and paper. I did so without question, and it was then that John told me about his phone conversation with Bob the previous day. Bob was in poor health. He had been hospitalized for the past twenty days, and had just been discharged when he talked to John by phone. He sounded “very rough,” as John put it. John was visibly upset, and definitely not his usual jovial self, and I realized why he had asked me to take notes—it was so I could organize the information and inform Bob’s friends – our friends – in as gentle a manner as possible.
That very morning, we were all informed that a very special limited run of commemorative MTO centennial plates had been made, and they were being made available to long-standing members of ALPCA. I checked the list to see if Bob’s name was there—of course it was—and I decided to acquire Bob’s plate on his behalf, so I could deliver it personally as a gesture of kindness to my ailing friend. I called Barbara and explained the situation, and asked if it would be alright to stop by. I didn’t know how Bob was feeling, and if he wasn’t up for a visit, I wasn’t going to press. But I was quite certain that a special plate like the MTO-100 would brighten his day.
Barb gave me the OK to stop by after lunch. I drove to his house, not far away, and had the plate ready. Barb graciously answered the door, thanked me for coming, and said that although Bob was unwell, he would love to see me. I could hear him calling from around the corner: “It's Jonathan! Bring him on in!”
I knelt down so I could be at eye level with Bob, who was resting in a recliner. He was clearly very weak. I knew there was something seriously wrong, and I also knew that I would have to make my visit brief. I told him the story of how the commemorative plates were made, and I presented the MTO-100 plate to him. He was floored. After so many years of Ontario governments not giving the time of day to collectors, we were finally being surprised with something very special. Bob was very grateful. “I’ll cherish this forever,” he said, and thanked me over and over again for making the trip to bring the plate.
I had to make it plain. “You’re worth it, Bob,” I said. It was the truth. He was a member of what has become a sort of extended family. No longer are these gatherings in Grimsby and Acton simply about acquiring collectibles. They have become reunions full of friends who become more familiar and more dear with each passing year. I told Bob about all his friends at the meet in Grimsby that morning who missed him and wished him a speedy recovery.
“Well, I sure would like to make it to Acton next spring,” he said. I hoped—very hard—that it would be so. But as it happened, the MTO-100 plate was Bob’s last. On November 2, four days after I said goodbye, Bob Cornelius passed away.
ALPCA has lost a stalwart member, I have lost a friend, and a family has lost a husband, father, and grandfather. Loss, sadly, is a part of life as times pass us by. But if we can grasp an ephemeral hold of those times as they touch us, moment by moment, we can cultivate memories of the ones we care about. And when the pain of losing them somehow diminishes—be it in weeks, months or years—eventually we will find not sadness, but everlasting warmth… a reason to smile that can carry us through our own days.
May Bob’s warmth give us all a reason to smile.
Rest in peace, my friend.
Further reading: Bob’s obituary “A Licence to Collect” – article featuring Bob at Grimsby, Niagara This Week, November 15, 2010. “The Family Grimsby” –My 2 Cents story wherein I visited Bob in his final days. I sent Bob an e-mail to let him know it was ready to read. I hope he was able to see it.