In mid-2017, two LSU officials thought they were going to get a big donation. They ended up getting a lot more than they bargained for.
Baton Rouge attorney Jerry Dodson’s collection of maritime memorabilia, which includes documents signed by 18 of America’s first 19 presidents, now decorates the first-floor lobby of LSU's Paul M. Hebert Law Center, an exhibit that will be officially dedicated on Friday.
Dodson was finalizing his law firm’s plans to endow a chair in maritime law at his alma mater when his visitors noticed the artifacts in his office.
“I said I’d planned on giving it to the Merchant Marine Academy," Dodson recalled. "They said, ‘Oh, we’d love to have it. We have no money whatsoever for any artwork.’ ”
The collection is valued at more than $1 million, according to Karen Soniat, the law school’s director of communications and external relations. It’s the fruit of a half-century career spent in international maritime law, a specialty Dodson thinks is particularly important in Louisiana, given the shipping commerce that takes place along the Mississippi River and coastal industries.
Dodson began collecting artifacts in 1977. While they include visually distinct items like a ship’s wheel, ship’s telegraph, ship’s bell and a multicolored, wooden ship’s head named “Olive,” the most noteworthy items are shipping passports.
“For the first 19 presidents, for an American ship to leave the United States, it had to have a passport signed by both the president and secretary of state,” Dodson said. “Back then, voyages were two or three years long, and at the end of the voyage, the captain would keep this document, and it would be handed down from one generation to another and now are sold at various auctions of maritime art or presidential signatures or things like that.”
Over the years, Dodson collected all of the early presidential shipping passports from George Washington through Rutherford B. Hayes. He is only missing one from William Henry Harrison, who died of typhoid fever on April 4, 1841, only 31 days after his inauguration. He only signed 24 documents, Dodson said, so they’re extremely rare.
“I found one, but it was $125,000. The law school said just give them more money,” said Dodson, chuckling.
The value of each passport depends on its rarity and condition, including how bold the signature appears. J. Revell Carr, former director of the Mystic Seaport Museum, researched the passports and provided descriptions of the items being displayed.
“Some of them are quite rare,” Dodson said. “There are a lot of John Tylers floating around, for some reason. There are pretty few Lincolns, Washingtons. Grants are kind of hard to find.
“I always said I had the fun of collecting it, and if it was unique and valuable as I thought it was, it ought to be on display for the public. I had a friend who went to the Merchant Marine Academy, so that’s how that idea came about. I had no idea that LSU had no money for art or anything like that, so I was just thrilled that they took it," he said. "Hopefully, it will get kids interested in maritime law and take the course in maritime law.”
Speaking of which, Dodson and his law partner Kenny Hooks are going to endow the chair in maritime law, which made that an especially productive meeting for Law Center Dean Tom Galligan and Soniat.
“We are thrilled about it," Soniat said, "just thrilled about it.”