Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

clark-fcnp Attention, collectors! I’m assembling a fresh slice of Arlington history—as told through postage stamps.

Our county boasts many assets worthy of commemoration on a stamp—the Custis-Lee Mansion, the Iwo Jima and Air Force memorials, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the Pentagon. But I was surprised recently to learn that none of those has been the subject of an official U. S. stamp.

The true story of what gets commemorated and first-day-issued in Arlington is complicated—but unique.

Caution: I am not a qualified philatelist. As a boy I amassed a stamp collection sufficient to stock a roadside stand that sold to a few gullible neighborhood kids. The remains of that album and book of first-day covers sit neglected in my basement.

For this history challenge I relied on Richard Rhoads, a true philatelist who buys newly issued stamps and first-day-of-issue envelopes with Arlington cancellations.
From his home office lined with Scott’s stamp catalogs and Linn’s Stamp News, Rhoads told me that Arlington, being close to Washington, should be an ideal site for occasional Postal Service new issues and ceremonies. “But officials often don’t want to come over the bridge,” he said.

“It’s usually easy to figure out why they pick a particular city or state,” he says, giving the example of a Valentine’s Day stamp from Valentines, Va.

The first U.S. stamp to feature an Arlington scene came out in 1922, Rhoads confirmed. It’s a lavender 50-cent stamp showing the Arlington Cemetery amphitheater. (Lo and behold, I found a copy in my boyhood album.)

Another Arlington Cemetery scene to be commemorated was the 1964 issue showing the eternal flame at President Kennedy’s gravesite.

The first time the Postal Service issued a first-day stamp in Arlington was for the Aug. 12, 1960, release of a 7 cent airmail stamp showing a red jet plane.

In 1970, a ceremony was held at Ft. Myer to release a postal card showing a weather vane commemorating the 100th anniversary of the National Weather Service—which actually got its start at Ft. Myer.

Rhoads showed me an Aug. 15, 1981, envelope released in Arlington exhorting Americans to “Remember the Blinded Veteran.” In the mid-1980s, Arlington was home to release of two in a first-class stamp series of transportation themes, one an 1880s omnibus, the other a school bus.

In the late 1980s-early 90s, Arlington provided the first cancellation for a nature series that included an owl and a grosbeak bird. We were also the site for release of stamps showing a bobcat and a fishing boat.

On Feb. 11, 1995, Postal Service bigwigs attended the dedication of the refurbished Preston King Station post office in Westover. (Rhoads owns a 1932 first-day cover addressed to King, who would die in World War II.)

In 2014, Arlington was the site of one in a three-part series of commemorative stamps honoring Medal of Honor winners. The ceremony for the Korean War version was at the aforementioned Arlington Cemetery amphitheater.

One Arlington historical event that went unrecognized by the Post Office was marked by Rhoads. The 100th anniversary of the first airplane fatality– Lt. Thomas Selfridge flying with Orville Wright—came in 2008. Rhoads designed his own envelope and arranged for the Ft. Myer post office to give its Arlington cancellation. That’s a love for both stamp collecting and for Arlington heritage.

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Last month’s decision by President Obama to take President McKinley’s name off Alaska’s highest peak (Mt. Denali) angered lawmakers from McKinley’s home state of Ohio. It also had an Arlington repercussion.

The social activism group Credo Action launched one of its online petitions to tell House Speaker (and Ohioan) John Boehner to be consistent in his outrage and restore Virginian George Washington’s name to what a Republican-controlled Congress in 1998 renamed as Reagan National Airport.

Credo reports it surpassed its goal and attracted 88,539 petition signers. Perhaps next they’ll try a petition to restore Virginia Hospital Center to Arlington Hospital (a name I still hear frequently).

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