I ‘ve known many collectors in my lifetime. I’ve been a collector for much of my lifetime. But I never met a collector like Herbert Hugh Hlady.
Or, to one and all, Herb. The retired English teacher and longtime stalwart of the Ladysmith Diggers and Collectors Club passed away last week, aged 73.
If you’ve ever held a garage sale in the Cowichan Valley (and beyond) or had a sales table at a flea market or antique show, you’ve met Herb Hlady, the man with the sweeping white hair and goatee – the man always in a hurry.
In a hurry to get to the next garage sale or to the next sales table. Herb, you see, and he readily admitted it, was obsessed. From childhood in Saskatchewan, where he’d scratched about the wind-tossed plains for agates, arrowheads and fossils, to acquiring just about any kind of small antique or collectible (display space, as you’ll appreciate, was a challenge for Herb), he was on the go, go, go.
If ever a man lived and breathed collecting (and, in later years, wheeling and dealing – to pay for his gas, he said), that man was Herb Hlady. I remember visiting his Chemainus home for the first time, 30 years ago, and being struck by the brightly glazed tops of soup tureens that encircled his dining room on a china rail. It was years later that I learned those were the tops of thunder mugs!
There was always a streak of irreverence in Herb; it showed in particular in his humour and in his verse (reading, crosswords, Scrabble, word games of any kind were also passions of his). Yet there was something almost reverential in the respect he showed for the antiques that caught his eye, particularly those that were handcrafted or hand-worn from usage. Perhaps this stemmed from his being a first-generation Canadian of Ukrainian descent. Like his father, Herb chose teaching. But the collecting, begun with finding some old coins in pocket change, once it took hold, was a force not to be denied. With his unquenchable thirst for knowledge, he became a walking Wikipedia, likely the authority on Medalta pottery.
To this day, I recall walking up a driveway to a garage sale in Cobble Hill and hearing pounding footsteps as someone rushed to pass me. It was Herb Hlady whom I hardly knew at the time. I was really annoyed that he deliberately tried to beat me. It was only when I came to know him through the Diggers Club that I came to understand that this was something bigger than both of us. When Herb the penultimate collector was on the hunt, stand clear!
I lost track of his collections over the years; when I first met him he admitted to 20 or so. But, twice yearly at each club mini-display, he introduced something new, always in multiples! I’ve never understood where he put it all or how he kept track of it all.
Perhaps he was making up for his lost treasures of childhood. As a rural one-room teacher his father had moved repeatedly to new postings. Each time, Herb recalled, "most of my collection would be dumped – the interlocked deer antlers from stags who died fighting, the petrified wood stump with the teredo wood holes, the Superman comic books…"
When, married with two daughters, they moved to B.C. in a half-ton truck, "All that we took that was collectible was the coins, some Indian artifacts and fossils, including one splendid Titanothere molar my uncle found in Eastern Saskatchewan…" Only another collector can understand the heartache!
Friday’s celebration of Herb Hlady’s life truly was a celebration, with repeated laughter as the "Herb" stories, always about collecting, were told by family and friends. And all those great antiques that he collected over the years? He told wife Lorraine that he’d had his fun, she can put them back into circulation for other collectors.