For many, running into Hollywood icons or hall of fame athletes takes connections, travel and just a little bit of luck. But for St. Catharines resident Roman Baran all it takes is the opening of a binder or a look at a wall, to view the collection of autographs that he has amassed over the last 25 years.
Originally from the small village of Oligva Korolivka located in western Ukraine, Baran and his mother moved to the outskirts of downtown Toronto, to live with his Aunt who acted as their sponsor. The vast change of scenery was not lost on Baran, around seven years of age at the time of the move, with his first culture shock coming in the form of a Dominion grocery store.
“Going into the store and smelling citrus fruit was my first shock of Canada,” said Baran, now 48. “Because in Ukraine we didn’t have citrus for one, we never had bright coloured fruits either. I remember when we did buy one we didn’t know what to do with it. So my mom and I tried a lemon thinking, ‘How can people eat this? This is so bitter!’ We didn’t know it was just for tea.”
Despite being faced with his fair share of culture shock during those early days in Canada, Baran was determined to make the adjustment to Canadian life as smooth as possible. The first real hurdle was the language barrier. Being from a small village in Ukraine provided him with no exposure to english or french, but he attributes his quick learning of english to the help of his family in Canada.
“When I came to Canada, what made it a lot easier for me to adjust to was the fact that I had cousins to live with. I learned very very rapidly, because for them they didn’t speak Ukrainian. So when I started at my first school, basically I was just thrown into it immediately and I had to learn as much as I possibly could. And when I got home, my cousins spoke to me in english and of course my aunt and uncle would translate a little bit, just to make it easier.”
After a number of moves during their first six months in the country, the family found themselves in St. Catharines, the city they’d make their permanent home. It was here that Baran completed his elementary and secondary education, before returning to Toronto to attend the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD).
After starting his program at OCAD Baran came to realize how quickly his money was depleting, while living in Toronto’s downtown core. This search for work led him to the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), starting as a part-time employee until a full-time position became available four years later. Not only did this opportunity lead to the position he’s held since, as a Protection Services Officer, but through an exhibit highlighting pop art icon Andy Warhol the AGO also introduced him to his love of autograph collecting.
“Because he was one of the masters of pop culture, one of the things Warhol had was a collection of autographs and personal artifacts of a lot of celebrities. For example, Fred Astaire’s dancing shoes, Marilyn Monroe’s promo pictures and autographs, and that pretty well is what got me started.“
The exhibit made Baran consider the idea of starting his own collection for himself. From that point onward he began approaching celebrities through letters and written requests, well before celebrity interaction turned to impersonal likes and retweets of today. The first time Baran wrote a request for an autograph was to NHL hall of fame inductee Rocket Richard, receiving a personalized autograph a few weeks later. From that moment, it immediately became a hit.
Baran quietly accumulated 300 autographs over the decade that would follow, keeping it as a personal hobby, something that his coworkers were unaware of until 2003. That year multidisciplinary artist Robin Pacific facilitated a collaborative art exhibit, which was displayed for a four month span at the AGO. Entitled “Uniform,” the artist invited all Protection Services Officers at the gallery to share “their personal histories and reflections about their work” at the AGO. 19 employees accepted the artist’s invitation, giving a glimpse into the personalities and passions of these individuals through a number of multimedia installations.
Not one to be boisterous, out of the 300 autographs in his collection at the time, Baran chose four autographs to be displayed in the exhibit. Narrowing his selections down to actor John Travolta, photographer Yousuf Karsh, hockey legend Wayne Gretzky and astronaut John Glenn.
“At that point I wanted to show a few of the autographs, I did keep it very quiet. It’s not something I showed too many people, and especially in those days. I keep it very private” Baran recalled of the experience.
Although he hasn’t been actively sending autograph requests for upwards of 10 years, Baran seems content with the current state of his collection, which now sits at over 400 autographs. While the Baran household’s primary autograph collector appears to have stepped away from the hobby for the time being, it looks like another family member is eager to pick up the torch.
“I was thinking of restarting collecting with my daughter Hannah,” said Baran, before being greeted by the sound of a chair being pushed away. Hannah, the oldest of Roman and his wife Jennifer’s three children, was within listening range of our conversation. She quickly returned to the living room where our interview was taking place, clutching onto her own framed Fitz and the Tantrums autograph, happily recounting her thoughts about the concert they attended.
With a smile on his face, Baran turned towards me and proudly stated, “she’s a second-generation collector.”