By Dave Bonner, Powell Tribune
A post-World War II uprising in Hungary attracted the attention of a 12-year-old Powell boy and inspired a life of stamp collecting.
Hungarians revolted against their Stalinist government in October of 1956, but their declaration of freedom was quickly crushed by Russian tanks and troops. Wes Learned of Powell remembers feeling empathy as the world watched Russian forces clamp down on the Hungarians’ bid for freedom.
“I came to understand that we just couldn’t help them, and felt bad for them at the time,” Learned said.
He turned to a nascent interest in stamps in response. At age 12, Learned had already been introduced to philately (stamp collecting) under the arm of the late Ray Easton, a longtime Powell funeral home director and father of Don Easton.
“I researched more of the history of Hungary and their stamps,” Learned recalled. “I like the geography of it and learn from it.”
Now 77, he has accumulated more than 4,400 regular issue Hungarian stamps through a variety of sources — individual collectors, auctions and eBay. Learned also knows the owner of the Hungarian Stamp Exchange, from whom he has made numerous acquisitions.
All are meticulously numbered in order and mounted in one of the several albums in his collection.
His early and persistent interest in Hungarian stamps has landed him in an unusual position. Working from his study in his Powell home, Learned serves as treasurer of the Society of Hungarian Philately, a group whose members worldwide have a strong interest in Hungarian philately and have ties to Hungary.
In correspondence with members of the society and the editor of the group’s newsletter, Learned’s background in finance and accounting appeared to sync up with the needs of a soon-to-be vacant treasurer position. He was asked to replace the retiring treasurer and did so in 2005.
The Society meets annually at large stamp shows around the country. He has recently attended meetings in Riverside, California; Mesa, Arizona; and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Next year’s meeting is set for Chicago.
He’s never been to Europe, but has also actively collected stamps from the Baltic Sea states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, along with many others.
Again asserting “geography is my deal,” his stamps portray the relative disappearance of Estonia for some 50 years. From the time of Hitler’s German invasion of Estonia in 1939 through the Russian domination at the end of World War II, Estonia didn’t issue a stamp until 1989-90.
“I’ve collected all of the Estonian stamps — including all the souvenir books of stamps since then,” Learned said.
He has no idea how many stamps he possesses in his various albums. They number in the thousands.
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“I’ve got a U.S. stamp collection, too, but I’m not done collecting worldwide yet,” said Learned, who is also a member of the American Philatelic Society.
Of course, he has a copy of the first postage stamp ever issued in the world. Known as the “Penny Black,” it was issued in Great Britain in 1840, a crude black stamp showing the head of Queen Victoria. Postage stamps debuted in the United States in 1845.
Learned’s nearly 50 years of stamp collecting began as a young boy, then tapered off in his early adult years. He credits his wife, Linda, with stimulating his renewed interest in stamps when he began suffering serious hearing loss.
“Linda said it would be good for me. I’ve been collecting seriously since about 1980,” said Learned. “I don’t spend much time at it any more, but when I was traveling the state in my job, I would take stamps with me. I could spread them out on the table in my room and put them in the proper place.”
Learned worked as an auditor for the State of Wyoming Department of Audit for 33 years.
His favorite stamp is from his U.S. collection, a commemorative stamp issued in a set of five to mark the 100th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase from France. The acquisition doubled the size of the United States in 1803-04, including lands in 15 present states west of the Mississippi (Wyoming being among them).
The set of five Louisiana Purchase commemorative stamps was sold only at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri. It took some doing for Learned to find all five.
“There are prettier stamps,” he said. “But I had to look so hard for the final one, and it felt so good when I finally completed my set of five.
“That’s my favorite stamp,” Learned affirmed.
He looks at it every day: His daughter, Rae Eckley of Cody, had the stamp enlarged as the face of a clock that resides in the master bedroom of the Learned home.
History, geography and satisfaction are the takeaways of Learned’s many years adventuring in stamps.
He also offers a piece of advice:
“Stamp collecting is a hobby, strictly for the enjoyment of the collector,” Learned said. “If you think you are going to make a lot of money at it, you’re sadly mistaken.”