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Tom Barrett collected his first autograph as a 6-year-old, when Minnesota Vikings head coach Norm Van Brocklin put pen to Barrett's paper. But it's his years collecting a more controversial set of signatures that made the 65-year-old Little Canada resident a triple Blue Ribbon-winner.

Barrett's history display at the Minnesota State Fair on the 50th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, including 22 signatures of people connected to the event — from former president Richard Nixon to Watergate security guard Frank Wills — was named the Sweepstakes winner for Creative Collections. It also captured First Place in the History, Collection category and won the Hennepin County Museum Award.

Not bad for something he started as a boy by asking famous people for their autographs. Barrett also counts an autograph and hand-drawn Snoopy from Charles Schulz and autographs from Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins among his collection.

He also has a signed photo of former FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover firing a Tommy gun and another of former White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card whispering in President George W. Bush's ear immediately after the 9/11 attacks.

Barrett, who retired three years ago as executive director of the Minnesota Gambling Control Board, is married to "Wonderful Wanda" and has an adult son and two granddaughters. History has become a passion, he said.

"As time went on, I collected more and more [signatures]," Barrett said. "It's been a good hobby, fun for me."

The Watergate scandal began early on the morning of June 17, 1972, when five burglars were arrested in the office of the Democratic National Committee, located in the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. The burglars were eventually connected to Nixon's reelection campaign and, after Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein revealed his role in the conspiracy, the president resigned Aug. 9, 1974.

Barrett has been gathering Watergate signatures for years. While he didn't personally obtain every signature — some were collected through East Coast connections — Barrett did reach out for many. Former presidential advisor Charles Colson; Woodward and Bernstein; E. Howard Hunt, a former CIA operative; John Dean, former White House counsel and Donald Segretti, an operative with the Committee to Re-Elect the President, each supplied signatures to Barrett.

Other of his "President's Men" signatures include G. Gordon Liddy, the former FBI agent who led the Committee to Re-Elect the President and John Mitchell, former Attorney General who later led Nixon's reelection committee.

Tom Barrett began collecting Watergate-related autographs in 1980 and just obtained Howard Hunt’s autograph this summer. Barrett’s favorite is that of security guard Frank Wills, upper left, his first autograph from the group, signed...
Tom Barrett began collecting Watergate-related autographs in 1980 and just obtained Howard Hunt’s autograph this summer. Barrett’s favorite is that of security guard Frank Wills, upper left, his first autograph from the group, signed...

David Joles, Star Tribune

Barrett's collection even includes the signatures of Mark Felt, the former FBI official and whistleblower who later admitted to being the Post's "Deep Throat" source, and Rose Mary Woods, Nixon's personal secretary who said she accidentally erased a segment of Oval Office audio tape. Barrett asked for Woods' signature himself.

"My dad told me long ago, 'Tom, don't put these people on too high a pedestal,'" Barrett said.

Calling himself an amateur historian — "I wish I had done better in school" — Barrett has nonetheless won several other State Fair awards over the years for his history collections. But he said his most valued autograph is from Charles Lindberg of Richfield. The late World War II veteran was among the first Marines to plant the U.S. flag atop Mt. Suribachi near the end of the Battle of Iwo Jima — while the Marines were still under fire.

Once the shooting had stopped, a second group of Marines was sent to the mountaintop to plant a much larger flag. That photograph would become the iconic image of the battle. It was important to Lindberg to set the record straight, Barrett said.

"I talked to him," Barrett said of the day he got Lindberg's autograph. "He just wanted to make sure history recorded the right moment."

Correction: Previous versions of this story misspelled Charles Schulz’s last name.