“I hate it when I hear about people who have collectibles hidden away somewhere. They need to show it, display it all.”
When students visiting from China and Taiwan attend Robert McGowan's annual backyard barbecue, they often have an odd request: They want their photo taken holding an old British military rifle and wearing a vintage army helmet, standing next to a replica of Yoda, the wizened creature from the "Star Wars" movies.
Not many University of Denver professors can grant such a wish. But McGowan can. And he can offer a lot more. In fact, some people who've visited his house say he ought to charge admission. It's like a museum.
The professor of management at the Daniels College of Business has gone through his life like a large piece of Velcro, collecting a mass of historical memorabilia.
"I think it all started when I was little and my dad took me to a Washington Senators' baseball game," McGowan says. "I got a baseball signed with a lot of the players' names, and it just went on from there."
"Went on" is putting it mildly. He estimates his collection of hundreds of items — everything from presidential letters, autographed guitars and yes, Yoda — to be worth upward of a half-million bucks.
Baseballs autographed by Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Jackie Robinson? Check. Letter from Albert Einstein about the atomic bomb? Check. Original John F. Kennedy campaign poster? Check. Signed guitars from Bruce Springsteen and Eric Clapton? Check. Sports. Politics. Wars. Music. Hollywood. The list is as long as a line at a gigantic collectors' trade show.
And all these valuables are locked away in a safe in the attic, right? On the contrary. McGowan displays all of it in his home.
"I hate it when I hear about people who have collectibles hidden away somewhere," he says. "They need to show it, display it all."
How about selling some of it? Nope. He says he'll gladly pass it all on to his two kids. However, about three months ago, he couldn't resist an offer for a Ty Cobb baseball card. The payoff? Eight grand.
"It was what they call a tobacco card — the cards back then came in packs of cigarettes. It was in pristine condition," he says. "Hard to believe a piece of cardboard would go for that much."
Having all that stuff is cool. But with McGowan, you can hear an extra dollop of satisfaction in his voice when he talks about the students getting to hold that rifle or touch Yoda.
"I really like it that they can handle it all," he says.
When McGowan isn't collecting he's doing something else he loves: teaching at DU. There's no doubt he adores the place: He's been here nearly 30 years.
"I love it here," he says. "DU's a great place. I came here from Penn State, which was so huge. You could walk across the entire campus and not see a familiar face. But at DU you see plenty of people you know. It's a really great institution that values teaching."
McGowan's impact has reached off campus, too. When he first arrived, he worked with then-Gov. Richard Lamm's administration and helped author the state's first-ever high-tech strategic plan to help a Colorado economy climb out of a thick recessionary mud in the 1980s.
"Things were really grim here, especially in the oil and gas industry," he says.
Today, McGowan and others at the Daniels College of Business are working with Gov. John Hickenlooper on increasing entrepreneurial opportunities in the state.
"I think the state's headed in the right direction, but it's not like flipping a switch," he says. "It'll take some time."