Congressman Gary Ackerman has combined his unique
stamp collection with his passion for politics.
With over two decades
of service in Congress, and years of civic activism in his native city,
it is clear that Gary Ackerman has put his personal stamp on the political
Few realize, however, that over a career full of diplomatic missions
to international hotspots and meetings with global leaders, Congressman
Ackerman made a hobby of collecting stamps everywhere he goes.
The result is a most unusual stamp collection locked away in a safe
place – one in which riveting political anecdotes lurk behind
every piece of postage.
Start Of It All
As with most aspects of Ackerman’s life, the very drive to collect
stamps started as an outgrowth of his passion for politics. His hobby
did not begin again until his term in office, when the U.S. Postal Service
chose to honor the 100th Congress with a series of stamps.
Intrigued by the series and seeking a unique memento from his first
term in office, Ackerman purchased enough First Day Covers – collectable
envelopes with an unused stamp, postmarked on the first day of a stamp’s
release – to have every member of Congress autograph one.
“I got every member of the House, I got the sergeant-at-arms,
I got the post master, the clerk of the House, the House parliamentarian
and the chaplain,” Ackerman recalled. “Then I did the same
thing in the Senate.”
In the end of the process, his unusual form of stamp collecting led
to a rare feat: “I’m sure I’m the only member of the
House who actually met every member and asked for their autograph,”
From the seat of national power, Ackerman and his stamps set out to
conquer the world. “In my committee, I get to meet a lot of world
leaders,” admitted one of the ranking Democrats on the House Foreign
Relations Committee. “And I said, I’m going to start [collecting].”
He began accumulating First Day Covers from every nation that he visited,
and brought the collectibles around to summits with foreign dignitaries
and meetings with heads of state. Today, the collection has grown to
hundreds of signatures from some the most powerful history-makers of
the 20th century.
Above all else, Ackerman seems to relish securing the signatures of
implacable political foes on the same First Day Cover, an inclination
that creates one-of-a-kind political artifacts and a ton of interesting
Russian leaders and sometime rivals Boris Yeltsin and Michael Gorbachev
signed the same cover. As did South African Prime Minister F.W. de Clerk
and his successor and rival Nelson Mandela.
“De Clerk signed it while Mandela was in jail,” Ackerman
remembered. “Then Mandela got out of jail.” When presented
with the cover bearing the autograph of leader who presided over his
imprisonment, Mandela at first declined to take Ackerman’s pen.
Then Mandela pulled a large Mount Blanc from his coat pocket. “I
will sign with a bigger pen to intimidate him,” Mandela told Ackerman
with a smile.
Out The Middle East
Ackerman acquired a cover bearing a Palestinian Authority stamp commemorating
the historic handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin,
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and President Bill Clinton –
and he got all three men to autograph it.
Over years of official travel among the capitals of the Middle East,
Ackerman rates Syrian ruler Hafiz al-Asad as the hardest signature to
secure. Eventually, Ackerman met the reclusive leader on a mission to
ask for the release of several Israeli captives. Asad did not release
the Israelis, “but he did sign the cover,” Ackerman said.
In addition to Syria’s Asad, that one cover carries the signatures
of five Israeli premiers, Hosni Mumbarak of Egypt, King Abdullah of
Jordan and President Clinton – a collection of leaders who shaped
the modern Middle East and defined the intractable Arab-Israeli conflict,
all on one First Day Cover.
Few fellow stamp collectors have crossed paths with Ackerman during
his travels in the halls of power around the world, though many become
interested in his unusual collection. The one exception, however, former
Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, had a sad story.
“She told me when she was younger, her father had given her a
wonderful collection, and she had collected as a young girl,”
Ackerman said. “But her father, who was also prime minister, was
killed and they looted her house and the collection was lost.”
A Good Cause
Ackerman took his love of stamp collecting to the floor of the United
States House of Representatives on Sept. 17, 2001, when he introduced
legislation to create a stamp honoring those lost on Sept. 11.
The Sept. 11 Heroes Stamp Act of 2001 was eventually passed, and required
the United States Postal Service to unveil a stamp honoring rescue workers
at Ground Zero. The stamp – which Ackerman helped unveil with
President George W. Bush in the Oval Office in 2002 – costs 45
cents, with the extra 11 cents going to charities for the families of
those lost in the tragic World Trade Center attacks.
The stamp portrayed three firefighters – including one from Queens
– raising a flag over the rubble at Ground Zero.
When Bush and Ackerman unveiled the stamp, Bush learned of the Queens
Congressman’s stamp collecting hobby, and dubbed him “the
The crowning item in Ackerman’s collection stems from his historic
visit to the Korean peninsula in 1993, where he became one of the only
people to ever cross the heavily fortified boundary between North and
That day began in the North, where Kim Il Sung had signed a cover. After
Ackerman strode across the DMZ, he asked to be taken to a post office,
where he had the same cover inked with a South Korean postmark –
the only piece of postage to make it from north to south in one day.
Then, to complete the artifact, Ackerman asked the president of South
Korea to sign. “I pointed out that the President North Korea had
signed it, and he handed it right back to me,” Ackerman said.
“So I made a pitch saying that hopefully one day, they would be
signing documents together reunifying the peninsula.” The pitch
With hundred of autographs and thousands of stamps under his belt, Ackerman
has set one historic goal for his collection. A dedicated supporter
of Israel who has spent much time focused on the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict, Ackerman wants to see the day when an independent Palestinian
state issues its first piece of international postage.
“I want the first prime minister of Palestine that is at peace
with Israel,” Ackerman said.