Suffolk collector plays name game

Published 3:38 pm Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Kevin Vavrek is a collector of autographs, so much so that it’s no easy task for him to find a particular piece in his collection.

It’s worse than finding a needle in a hay stack. It’s finding a floppy disk signed by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak amidst autographed action figures, soccer balls and various instruments, even a violin with the handwriting of musician and dancer Lindsey Stirling.

This 15-by-15-foot room in the North Suffolk home Vavrek shares with his family is a cornucopia of pop culture going back decades, with Tony Hawk, Tom Cruise and all four original members of Kiss stored inside.

Newsletter

Email newsletter signup

As of May 2, the 49-year-old has 18,878 autographs on various items hanging on the walls, sitting on shelves or filed in neatly organized binders.

Kevin Vavrek shows off signatures of the Pittsburgh Pirates on a helmet. (Tracy Agnew/Suffolk News-Herald)

“My goal was to turn 50 this December with 20,000, which isn’t going to happen,” Vavrek said as he scanned a shelf filled with books signed by Stephen King, Clive Cussler and other bestselling authors. “But my second goal was 18,262. They say on your 50th birthday, you’ve walked on this earth for 18,262 days, so it’s like having an autograph for every day I’ve been alive.

“I’m actually good for a couple years after that.”

His lifelong hobby started back when he was in the second grade in Silver Spring, Md. Actor Dick Dyszel showed up at his school as his character “Captain 20,” the alien astronaut who hosted Washington D.C.’s afternoon block of children’s cartoons and live action shorts.

Vavrek was already fascinated by printed signatures he’d cut out of magazines from the likes of Joe DiMaggio and other icons, but “Captain 20” was his first big break.

“Me and my buddies snuck out of class, and we caught him walking down the hall,” he said.

Eventually he got his first car, a 1967 Chevy Nova, and he was able to create more opportunities to get signatures. His odds improved drastically when he got older and started working for Ingram Entertainment, a distributor of DVDs, video games and audiotapes.

He now manages the Washington, D.C., Virginia, Delaware and Pennsylvania regions. He’s dropped off copies to celebrities personally and gotten autographs in the process,which is how he got a signed cowboy hat straight from the head of country music singer Mark Chesnutt, according to Vavrek.

“I knocked on his bus thinking it would be some manager guy, but it was Mark Chesnutt,” Vavrek said. “I asked for an autograph, but there weren’t any pictures. He took off his hat and said, ‘Will this do?’”

He has a Shellback certificate, which commemorates a U.S. Navy sailor’s crossing of the equator, signed by former President Franklin Roosevelt that set him back $300, the most he’s spent on an autograph, he said. His presidential collection has numerous signatures going back to FDR.

A tire used in a NASCAR race bearing Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s signature is one of the more unique items in Vavrek’s collection.

He’s had memorabilia signed by the late actor Verne Troyer, along with John Travolta — who goes out of his way to sign things for fans, Vavrek said — and the intimidating character actor Danny Trejo.

“He’s rough looking, but he couldn’t have been nicer,” Vavrek said about the “Machete” actor.

He’s a diehard Pittsburgh sports fan with Pirates like Dock Ellis and others across countless baseballs and jerseys throughout his trophy room, and Steelers like JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Harrison proudly displayed.

Vavrek admitted that he’s slowed down a bit as he’s gotten older. He doesn’t have Captain America actor Chris Evans, but he does have a fellow Avenger in Mark Ruffalo, who plays the Hulk.

His superhero collection includes a figurine of the Flash, with one leg signed by John Wesley Shipp, the actor who played the speedster in the ’90s television show. Coincidentally, Vavrek explained, both Shipp and Grant Gustin — the actor who plays the modern Flash on the CW network — are Norfolk natives.

“What are the odds that these two actors that played this character, out of all the places,” Vavrek said holding the toy with one leg still unsigned. “One of these days, I’ll get Grant Gustin on the other leg.”

He explained that there are plenty of opportunities to get those John Hancocks in Hampton Roads. Actors like Terry O’Quinn — famous for his role of John Locke on the TV series “Lost” — frequently come to Virginia Beach.

A big part of the search is simply connecting with other collectors.

“We constantly run into each other and share info. If you’re a legitimate autograph collector, then I can’t imagine I haven’t run into you, because there’s only so many opportunities and venues,” Vavrek said. “It’s all about the information. Somebody can come through town, but if you don’t know about it, then it doesn’t do you any good.”

Vavrek’s wife, Diana, and their five children ages 9 to 18 don’t share the same relentless enthusiasm that he has with the hobby, and Vavrek also made it clear that he doesn’t do this for the money by any means.

The single most expensive autograph in Vavrek’s collection is a “shellback” certificate he purchased from a sailor’s son in order to gain the signature of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

“I wouldn’t recommend anyone collecting autographs for an investment, because you’ll never get back what you put into it,” he said. “There’s no such thing as a free autograph, whether it’s gas, tolls or buying something to get signed. You really need to do it because you love it and enjoy it.”

What he really enjoys are the once-in-a-lifetime experiences of meeting the people holding the Sharpies. Breaking the ice with NASCAR legend Richard Petty with a conversation about his time working on the animated “Cars” with his wife or being awestruck in front of the late John Wooden, NCAA head coach and former basketball player, the “Wizard of Westwood.”

Then there are the true heroes that he’s met in his quest. He recalled one family trip to Walt Disney World in Florida where he got to meet one of the survivors of the USS Indianapolis disaster in 1945. He’s met other survivors in Williamsburg and Sunbury, N.C.

“It’s just amazing to be able to talk to these guys,” he said. “It’s such an amazing story.”

Vavrek had plans to add more names to his room at Lunatic Luau in Virginia Beach on May 5, including Alice in Chains and Stone Temple Pilots.

He confided that his wide range of tastes makes him unique, even in such a niche hobby.

“I love movies, sports, music; I have a lot of interests,” he said. “A lot of the autograph collectors in the area may focus on sports or just do music. There’s only a small handful of us that are actually into everything.”