By Janie Southard
ROCKFORD -- The late Robert Runser, once head librarian with the Detroit Public Library System, discovered a lifelong passion at age 10 in Erie, Pa. that not only has made books possible for the masses but also has changed the course of civilization -- the printing press.
During his lifetime he amassed a significant collection of antique printing presses and his three grandsons, including Barry Peel, 39, of Rockford and brothers Brett and Kerry, recently completed installing part of his collection in a private Rockford building.
The unmistakable smell of ink and metal type hangs in the air of the small private shop that presently houses 12 antique presses of varying sizes as well as a couple hundred drawers of type including several complete examples of wood type.
"He found a little hand press in his aunt's attic when he was about 10 and he taught himself to print Christmas and birthday cards. Printing and collecting presses and printing equipment became his hobby for the next 76 years.
"And, it was only a hobby; he never took one penny for any printing he ever did," Barry Peel told The Daily Standard Thursday evening in the little print shop. Runser graduated from The Ohio State University in the late 1930s right in the middle of the Great Depression when he schooled himself to save everything.
"He was the smartest man I've ever known. His thirst for knowledge was unbelievable. But he was also practical and could fix anything. And, saved everything?! I remember he'd have us kids out in the back straightening nails he'd pulled out of boards," Peel said shaking his head. "Next minute you might find him with someone discussing Babylon or the ancient Egyptians."
A Renaissance man with ink on his fingers, Runser was entrusted with an aging crony's set of presses and with instructions to find a home for the set. He was able to do so at the University of Wisconsin. He rounded up relatives including grandkids to move and set up the equipment in Wisconsin.
Another project Runser accepted was to help set up a working antique print shop in Greenfield Village at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich.
"Someone knew he had a knowledge of printing and asked him to lend a hand at Greenfield. They'd been working on it for six months before he got there. Immediately he saw they had the presses set up wrong," Peel said.
Predictably Grandpa Runser (or Nanker, as his grandkids called him) could easily identify and knew the history of many type faces. He even had an autographed photo of Frederic W. Goudy, designor of Runser's favorite type fond, Goudy Old Style.
Among the souvenirs at the new shop is a six-inch thick Webster's Dictionary that Runser used at least once a day at his own little shop, Rob Run Press, in Rochester, Mich. He considered a dictionary absolutely necessary for any print shop.
"I well remember as a kid with any word I'd ask him about he'd take me by the hand to look it up in the dictionary," said Peel who learned to print at seven years old under Nanker's tutelage.
Over the years the two printed many things together including paper banners announcing the family's reunions. However, they weren't called reunions but rather each one was a "royal nonesuch."
"Grandpa always did things differently," Peel said.
The last thing the two printed together was a poster commemorating Rockford's 175th Community Celebration in 1995.
Peel worked at his family's market (Barry's Family Market in Rockford) then. Whenever he had a couple days off work, he'd head for Michigan right after work to spend some time with his grandfather.
"I picked the poster just to have something to print. We never distributed it. It was the last thing we ever printed together," Peel said.