There’s a small wooden sign near the door of an Omaha house near 42nd and Leavenworth Streets.
“Howard Hamilton, Historian,” it reads.
It could say “Howard Hamilton, Cemetery Tour Guide.” It could say “Howard Hamilton, Archivist.” It could say “Howard Hamilton, Purveyor of All That Is Weird But True.”
Because the house’s inhabitant — long-haired, bearded, 81-year-old Hamilton — needs more than a single label. He’s after a different type of history. Something a little harder to find.
Hamilton has spent his life mining Omaha newspapers and archives for the bits of the past that are often quickly forgotten.
His home is filled with scrapbooks — hundreds of them — that document the city from its founding to the present day. Demolitions. Ribbon-cuttings. Famous residents. Historical oddities. A lot of historical oddities.
Hamilton, a retired history instructor at Metropolitan Community College, has been clipping and binding them for decades. One room of his house is lined with shelves of scrapbooks that run around the walls in chronological order.
Another room is dedicated to Omaha cemeteries. In the room are groups of albums. In the albums are newspaper clippings and listings of those buried in every grave Hamilton has been able to document.
Once there was more. Several years ago he gave much of his collection to the Durham Museum. There, collected in boxes, it fills up walls and occupies several square feet of table space.
“It’s really a lifetime of research that he’s given us,” said Carrie Meyer, curator of exhibits and collections at the Durham.
He’s still culling. Most days Hamilton selects a paper from a stack and begins clipping at a cluttered desk. Some clips, pertaining to history, will feed his scrapbook timeline. Others, such as concert listings, advertisements and handbills, go into other stacks of clippings, on a table near his kitchen, that are divided according to geography.
Walking into Howard’s world for the first time, you want to know why. Why bother collecting it all. Organizing it all. Reading it all.
He likes knowing it all. Conversations with Hamilton can digress into stories about death, about Europe, about politics and more. He likes telling them.
“I’ve always been interested in history,” he said.
Then he tells the first of many stories. When he was in third grade, his class was assigned to memorize and recite the U.S. presidents, starting with George Washington. Hamilton has never forgotten them. And he will recite them for you, in a rhythmic, mnemonic way, ending with “Kennedy, et cetera ... ”
Growing up in Omaha, Hamilton said, he was always learning. He read voraciously and could name the capital of Pakistan (Karachi, at the time) decades before a child could readily Google it.
Hamilton delivered the speech at his high school graduation — he can still tell you the story of how he beat out another student for the honor. He studied at Creighton University and then graduate school. He spent some time working for the government overseas and traveled around Europe and the Middle East.
In 1959, Hamilton returned to Omaha. A friend told him about a stack of bound volumes of the Omaha Bee newspaper. They were his to look through if he wanted them.
Hamilton began poring through the volumes, clipping out the bits of Omaha’s early days that fascinated him. Today, he said, he’s read all of the early Omaha newspapers — The Arrow, The Republican, The World-Herald.
He also began walking through cemeteries, reading the names on graves, looking through library or newspaper archives to learn the stories behind them. Cemeteries had always fascinated him. Over time he became something of an authority on Omaha cemeteries. He still gives tours.
In fact, Hamilton became something of an authority on general Omaha trivia. He tells the story of Carl Hans Lody, a German spy during World War I who briefly married into the Storz brewing family. Or the story of James MacDonald, an Omaha police officer who lost his leg and buried it under a grave marker reading “James MacDonald leg.”
He can tell you about the creator of butter brickle ice cream — from Omaha. He has written about an Alaskan totem pole that used to stand in Elmwood Park, and about a live elephant used in an Opera Omaha performance in 1983.
He’s written a book — “Believe It, Omaha (Or Not).” He collected more than 1,300 trivia questions for a 1993 board game, Trivia-Omaha.
A few years ago Meyer, at the Durham, heard about Hamilton after a story ran about him in the paper. She figured it would be worth reaching out to see some of his collection. She got more than she bargained for.
Hamilton ended up gifting the Durham 15 file cabinets of his collected material. Durham staffers still aren’t through sorting it all.
The unmarried Hamilton is aware he’s getting older. He has a plan for what he wants to happen to his collection.
Bill Knutson, a longtime friend and himself a history enthusiast, will inherit it.
Not just the scrapbooks. The 1904 brick that says “Don’t Spit on the Sidewalk,” from a time when Omaha passed an ordinance banning the practice for health reasons, and the “world’s smallest chair,” smaller than a thimble and encased in a transparent box that Hamilton said was whittled by a Nebraska craftsman.
It’s a big responsibility, Knutson knows, accepting all that material. But it’s one he’s willing to take on.
“It’s his life work, essentially,” Knutson said, one that Hamilton is immensely proud of. “Cumulatively, it’s a tremendous social history ... smaller pieces that enlighten you to what was going on in the community.”
How much of that is still as useful as it was pre-Internet depends, Meyer said. Want to know who’s buried where? These days, it’s often just a few keystrokes away.
But Hamilton’s thoroughness makes the collection valuable, she said. A visitor interested in a photo of an old building also will find, along with it, dozens of clippings that provide context. It’s all there in the same place.
Bill Gonzalez, photo archive associate at the Durham, remembers leafing through Hamilton’s collection one day and stumbling upon death notices from the 1920s. The most common cause of death: Spanish flu.
“It’s the esoteric stuff we find. That little unknown stuff that’s valuable,” Gonzalez said. “You gotta wade through a lot of stuff to find it.”
Knutson wants to see it all on display, maybe at a historical society. He’s adamant, and so is Hamilton, that it shouldn’t be packed away in boxes somewhere and forgotten.
Because at the heart of it all, Hamilton said, there’s one undeniable reason for why he does what he does.
“I like people,” Hamilton said. “If you have a story about your trip to San Francisco, you will find, in me, a good listener.”
Stories are important. They get people talking. They get people sharing.
So, maybe this is why Hamilton has spent his life clipping out the news of the day. He’s piecing together enough talking points to last several lifetimes.