The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

January 25, 2013

Stamp of approval: Retired teachers share love of collecting with others

Ruth Rice

— If Joe and Mary Anne Bell of South Fork were to get a stamp of approval for their work with local school children, they would be sure to add it to their collection.

The Bells, who are members of Johnstown Stamp Club, are avid stamp collectors and have been sharing their love of stamps at local schools and libraries.

“We had some requests from schools who were anxious for us to come in,” Mary Anne Bell said. “We liked the idea of teaching something.”

The Bells are retired teachers from Greater Johnstown School District.

Joe Bell taught math and algebra, while Mary Anne Bell taught English and reading and ran the school newspaper.

They have discovered that history, geography, math and vocabulary are some of the subjects that can be taught through stamps.

So far, the Bells have visited fourth- and sixth-graders at Central Cambria Elementary in Ebensburg and fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders at Forest Hills Elementary in Sidman.

“We thought it would be chaos with more students when we went from six to 25 students,” Mary Anne Bell said. “It was a big challenge and took more time.”

Class activities have included Internet research, making maps, designing a stamp, matching stamps to countries or state names, identifying famous people and adding together fractionals, stamps issued to make up the difference in postage rates.

“Sometimes the teacher used our class for a grade,” Joe Bell said.

At the Bells’ Forest Hills session, he brought in a poster he made on the Russian, or Cyrillic, alphabet and was able to teach students how to write their first or last name.

Joe Bell has been collecting stamps for more than 50 years, starting when he received his father’s stamp album from his grandmother’s basement.

“The first one I found was Russian,” said Joe Bell, who while in college took a course on the Russian language along with his required math courses. “I picked up on it and loved it.”

He also has helped area Boy Scouts earn a stamp collecting merit badge.

For anyone wishing to start a stamp collection, the Bells said a good place to start is the Johnstown Stamp Club, which meets the fourth Monday of the month at Johnstown Senior Center, 550 Main St., downtown Johnstown.

Mary Anne Belle said there are more than 30 members, with 12 to 14 an average attendance at meetings.

Fellow members have always been quick to offer or find stamps the Bells were collecting.

Perfins, stamps that have had initials or a name perforated across them to discourage theft, are Joe Bell’s specialty.

The name is a contraction of perforated initials or perforated insignia, and perfins can be worth as much as $600 to $700.

Bell said he is fascinated by any stamp with Hitler on it. Some have the face blotted out and are not listed in catalogues.

The most meaningful stamp in Joe Bell’s collection is the Russian No. 1, the first issued in the USSR.

He also has the penny black, the first postage stamp in England in 1840.

Other unusual stamps include anything Russian from 1918 to 1920, 1936 Olympic stamps from Germany and a set of three airmail zeppelin stamps created for mail that traveled aboard the Graf Zeppelin, the largest airship ever created.

The Bells are active hunters and like to complete sets through stamp shows and at the stamp club, dealers and shops.

While her husband is a serious stamp collector, or philatelist, Mary Anne Bell collects stamps, seals, stamps on covers and stamps on postcards.

After collecting bells since 1999 or 2000, she found out about bells on stamps and started her own stamp collection.

Her favorite subjects are bells, lighthouses and all types of fairy-tale and Disney characters.

“You can find stamps to fit any interest – sports, churches, art,” Mary Anne Bell said. “I like to get involved in the history.”

She also has used stamps to teach the creation story at her church’s vacation Bible school and displayed her fairy-tale stamps at Cambria County Library in downtown Johnstown.

The Bells volunteer at the American Philatelic Society in Bellefonte, a nonprofit organization that relies on donations.

“We’ve been going once a month for five or six years,” Joe Bell said. “Sometimes we take them our old albums after we take out the stamps if they’re duplicates.”

Joe Bell said the current self-stick stamps ruin the stamp for collection because they can’t be removed from the envelope without tearing.

“I have to cut around it if I want to save it,” he said.

The Bells attended a convention of the American Philatelic Society three years ago, and Joe Bell attended an international exhibition in Washington, D.C., that he estimated would have taken three days to go through.

Joe Bell sometimes acquires stamp collections at local auctions.

After buying a whole case of stamps, he has discovered a find worth more than his cost lying at the bottom.

Even when the Bells vacation in Cape Coral, Fla., they are on the trail of a coveted stamp through selling and trading.

As with U.S. government currency, there are ways to tell if a supposedly valuable stamp is real, including watermarks and even the consistency of the glue.

“There are a lot of forgeries,” Joe Bell said. “You have to take it to an expert at the American Philatelic Society, which can cost $30 a stamp.”

The Bells’ home off Rager Hill Road has stamps in at least 80 albums in bookcases and cabinets large and small.

They estimate their designated stamp room is 95 percent taken over by their stamp collections.

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