By Mika Payden-Travers, ZSR Library Development Officer

There is one thing that I think everyone can agree to when it comes to recent Presidential races, they have certainly been interesting! But when one analyzes American history, each election has been unique in its own way. The few individuals (46) who have served as President (or the President’s spouse) have each represented a specific time in our history. Each President is fascinating when considered with their historical context, which is one reason we were excited when a Wake parent approached us with an offer to donate his collection of autographs from Presidents and First Ladies.

There’s something magical about seeing a historical signature, knowing that a U.S. President (or First Lady) signed their name to a piece of paper which still exists. It gives us a tangible connection to the people and events of the past, and thanks to Bob Burke whose son Cody graduated from Wake Forest in 2019, our current Deacs will eventually be able to see a part of presidential history. Bob has donated his collection of President’s and First Ladies’ signatures to Special Collections & Archives.

Earlier this fall, we asked Bob to share with us what motivated him to start his collection and here are this thoughts:

I grew up in a small town in the hills of southeast Oklahoma. As an only child with no neighbors to play with, and with both parents working, books were my best friends. Each Monday, my father took me to our town’s small library to check out all the books I could carry. In the summer when I was 12, I read all 468 books in the town library. I treasure the handwritten certificate I was given for accomplishing that feat. I was the first person on either side of my family to attend college, but my parents and grandparents always encouraged me to read. My Grandfather Burke told me books were a ticket out of a common and boring life.

From the beginning, stories about the founding of our country and early and courageous leaders intrigued me. That instilled in me a thirst to discover more about the men and women who, without a road map, laid out the future of a great republic. In high school, a history teacher whetted my appetite even more about American history. I did so much extra research into some of the characters, she occasionally allowed me to teach the class.

In college I began a huge collection of historical books. Before I began giving them away years ago, my library exceeded 12,000 volumes. My collection of the autographs of American presidents and first ladies began 45 years ago when I was in law school and served as Oklahoma Secretary of Commerce. In that position, I frequently was called to meetings in Washington, D.C., Boston, and New York City. In Boston, I accidentally wandered into an old bookstore that sold historical autographs. I bought a few to have framed for my office. I was hooked. I discovered an autograph dealer in New Hampshire that specialized in autographs of U.S. presidents and first ladies. Over time, I added to my collection. Since President Nixon, I was able to obtain autographs of presidents and first ladies usually in person because of my active involvement in politics and government.

And can you tell us why you decided Wake Forest would be a good home for your collection?

When our sixth and last child, Cody Burke, selected Wake Forest University for college, I was elated. The Burkes were returning to North Carolina after 200 years. My parents and I had taken many genealogical trips to North Carolina where we found my grandfather, 5 generations before, had lived on the Yadkin River between Winston-Salem and Salisbury. He and his family lived within three miles of Daniel Boone. In fact, on the same day in court that James Burke was hired by the county to map out a road along a nearby creek, Boone was asked to find the best route to the “Great Gap,” the Cumberland Gap.

In addition to the family connection to North Carolina, I have a historical connection to Dr. James Ralph Scales, the iconic former Wake Forest president. Dr. Scales grew up in a small town in northeast Oklahoma, eventually became president of Oklahoma Baptist University, and was a noted historian. In many of the 137 historical non-fiction books I have written, I have footnoted Dr. Scales’ book on Oklahoma politics published 40 years ago. He is revered in educational circles in Oklahoma even to this time.

Cody flourished at Wake, one of the reasons that I selected the university as a repository for my collection. Even though Cody now is a member of Teach for America and working on his masters, I still have a WF Dad sticker on my car. I always will.

For more information about Bob Burke, please see:

The Bob Burke Presidential and First Ladies Signature Collection has been rehoused and is currently being accessioned and inventoried. For further information, please contact