Preston Cook’s longtime passion was triggered by one line in a movie.
“I saw a movie in 1966 called ‘A Thousand Clowns,’ and there was one line in the movie, ‘You can’t have too many eagles,’” Cook said.
Cook, 72, has spent the rest of his life trying to prove that point.
“I walked out and said, ‘Maybe I’ll collect eagles,” Cook said. “A few months later, I got drafted in the height of the Vietnam War. I got issued a (Army) dress uniform with brass buttons that were gold-plated with an eagle on them. I snipped them off when I was discharged two years later. I still wear them today. I didn’t end up going to Vietnam, but I defended the shores of Georgia.”
For more than 50 years, the former Carmel resident has devoted himself to the American eagle, building a multi-million dollar collection of more than 25,000 eagle objects. In April, he released a book, “American Eagle: A Visual History of Our National Emblem.”
Cook starting off collecting postcards, pins and buttons. He began making more money as a real estate broker and then started a real estate investment management company with a partner in 1992, so he began buying more items. The internet and sites such as eBay and other auction sites made it easy to collect. A carved wooden eagle by John Haley Bellamy is the most valuable item in his collection at approximately $250,000.
“It’s about the symbolism of the eagle,” Cook said. “The book is primarily about how the eagle is used in our society and our culture.”
Since launching a team to help, the book took 7 1/2 years to complete. Cook, now retired, hired a photographer, a book designer and librarians to fact-check. He later hired a managing editor.
“I have 1,500 books and a thousand articles,” he said. “I never found anyone who has a collection anywhere close to what I have. You’ll see fierce eagles and passive eagles. There are flying eagles and perched eagles. They are more official looking for military and government and more artistic for other uses.”
Cook lived in Carmel for three years before moving this summer. His wife, Donna, couldn’t get used to the Midwest winters, so they will spend the winters in California. But they plan to be back to Carmel often to visit his wife’s daughter, granddaughter and three great-grandchildren. Cook had moved to California in 1971 and built his real estate business there.
“I brought the eagle collection into the marriage and she brought five children,” said Cook, who was single until he was 40. “She tolerates the collection.”
Cook and his wife have a condo near the National Eagle Center, which has exhibits and live birds, in Wabasha, Minn., where they spend their summers. Eagles tend to congregate near that town on the Mississippi River. His collection is stored in another building in Wabasha.
Cook donated proceeds from the book to Eagle Center to help raise funds for a museum, which would hold his collection.
The book is available on Amazon.com and at Barnes & Noble. For more, visit americaneaglecollection.com.