Wednesday, August 22, 2001

He'd like to buy a world of Coke

40-year employee has a real thing for collectibles

        The only thing most people want to collect from their place of employment is a paycheck.

        Ed Kleier is a proud exception to that rule.

        For 40 years, he picked up his weekly check at the Coca-Cola Bottling Company of Cincinnati. But even before he took a job at the plant — and ever since he retired in 1990 — he sought out anything bearing the company's world-renowned red-and-white logo.

        Just a minuscule portion of Ed's collection goes on display Friday at the Cincinnati Museum Center in Union Terminal. Along with other area collectors' prized possessions, his Coke collectibles provide a local link to two touring exhibits of valuable artifacts assembled under the “World of Coca-Cola on Tour” banner.

[photo] Ed Kleier holds a mid-1940s Coca-Cola sign.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
| ZOOM |
        At the terminal through Sept. 23, the local displays and touring exhibits — featuring rare advertising art, containers and promotional items from Coke's Atlanta archives — are part of the year-long celebration marking the 100th anniversary of Cincinnati's Madisonville-based Coca-Cola bottler.

        Ed's collection stands as a tribute to a man in love with his work. Such affection is rare in these days of diminishing company loyalty.

        Coke memorabilia fills Ed's Northern Kentucky home and spills into an attached addition and four outbuildings. “Extensive” doesn't even begin to cover his collection.

        He has vintage vending machines, antique clocks and thermometers. Pens, pencils and ice picks. Coolers. Cups and coasters. Caps and bottles. Cans and jugs. Clothes and tote bags. Bottle cartons in wood, cardboard and aluminium.

        Ashtrays and lighters. Book ends and fish bobbers. Calendars and posters.

        Signs small enough to sit atop a cash register and big enough to hang on a barn.

        A 9-foot tall bottle. And a 1950s robot named “Curtis Wright” dressed as a delivery man.

        All wear the Coke logo.

        “A lot of this stuff was going to be deep-sixed,” Ed said as he opened the door to the shed where Curtis Wright stands. “I didn't want to see it drown.”

   “World of Coca-Cola on Tour” — combining two touring exhibits of valuable Coke artifacts for the first time — opens Friday and runs through Sept. 23 in the Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal.
   The exhibition, augmented by displays of local Coke memorabilia, is part of the yearlong celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of Cincinnati.
   The displays are along the Museum Center's abbreviated concourse. The exhibition is in the Collett Gallery.
   The Coca-Cola displays and exhibition are free to the public. Parking: $4. For Museum Center hours and information, call (513) 287-7000.
        Some items were sinking in a sea of syrup.

        “After the Mashburn family sold the business,” Ed said, “the new owners closed the sign shop and started tossing stuff in Dumpsters.

        “Those Dumpsters had leftover Coke syrup in them. And I'm not ashamed to admit I dove in to save some pieces.”        

Passionate collector

        Ed started his Coke career as a driver's helper. He remembers when he first reported for work — “Aug. 14, 1950 at 7 a.m.”

        Moving up to become a driver, he spent 14 years lugging wooden cases of glass bottles filled with Coke on and off his truck. At age 69, he still has ham-sized forearms.

        Ed eventually worked his way into management. And seldom took a day off.

        For the first 25 of the 40 years he worked at Coke, he never went on vacation.

        “I just loved getting up in the morning,” he said, “and going to work every day.”

        He collects Coca-Cola memorabilia with the same passion.

        His collection started in 1947, when his older brother, Ted, went to work for Coke. Another brother, Ned, as well as Ed's daughter, Donna Hollingsworth, would also work at the Cincinnati plant. In all, the Kleier family has spent 123 years with the soft-drink bottler.

        “I started collecting because Coke's stuff looked so neat,” Ed said. “It wasn't cheesy. It was well-made, looked nice, felt good.”

        He was hooked. Still is.

        “It's a habit,” he said with a smile. “An addiction. A passion. An obsession.”

        And a link to the past.

        Ed associates his collection with a sweet drink and sweet memories.

        He recalls a spirit of friendly cooperation every time he goes through his collection and handles an item marked “Cincinnati.” It can be an empty Coke bottle from the '50s. His old uniform. Or an order pad from 1970. One with his signature calls for $41 worth of Coca-Cola to be delivered to the Beechmont Avenue Skyline chili parlor.

        “People seemed to pull together more then,” Ed said.

        “You went to work and nobody tried to do you wrong. They tried to do you right.

        “I wish,” he added, “life today would be more like that.”

        If Ed could make that wish come true, his collection of sweet memories would be complete.

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.


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