The museum officials of Kansas City were frankly baffled by the young man with the booming laugh. But they had to admit that he did seem to have a plan. The city had just become heir to a 74-room mansion, and 26-year-old John Ripley Forbes had driven all the way from Boston just to present a scheme for putting it to use. Working without pay ("until you can afford me"), Forbes raised $18,000, stocked the mansion with 160,000 specimens of everything from butterflies to a stuffed buffalo. By the end of four months, Kansas City had a flourishing natural history museumand 1,000 visitors a week.
In the 14 years since then, John Ripley Forbes has repeated that performance so many times that he has become the Johnny Appleseed of the museum world. He has badgered millionaires, begged and borrowed exhibits, set up children's museums from Portland. Ore. to Jacksonville. Fla. Last week, as visitors streamed into his new museum in San Jose, Calif., Forbes could chalk up No. 18.
Lectures on Leave. The son of an Episcopal minister, Forbes started his first museum in his own attic in Stamford, Conn., often trotted over to ask the advice of his famed neighbor, Naturalist William T. Hornaday. He studied zoology and ornithology at the State University of Iowa and Bowdoin College, later became curator of a special natural history collection in Stamford. While serving as an Army Air Corps sergeant in Alabama, he carried on his work. On days off, he managed to raise enough money for a museum in Geneva, Ala., spent his leaves lecturing and showing movies in schools.
Over the years, Forbes's National Foundation for Junior Museums. Inc. (formerly the William T. Hornaday Memorial Foundation) has left its mark on scores of communities. In 1943, Forbes blew into Nashville, helped raise $15,000 to open a junior museum in an old stone house, started it off with exhibits from Manhattan's American Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Institution. Then he moved on to Jacksonville, Fla. and Charlotte.N.C.
Rats on Loan. In Fort Worth his museum was so successful that the city decided to put up a $500,000 model building. In Atlanta he organized a program by which hundreds of Scouts have learned about camping, handicrafts and the dangers of litterbugging and vandalism. In Sacramento. Calif., he not only started a museum but a pet library as well. Today, the museum keeps 237 hamsters, rats, snakes, guinea pigs, squirrels, rabbits and turtles which children can borrow for a week at a time.
In his Sacramento bungalow. Forbes starts each day by feeding the birds from his kitchen window. Then he heads for the foundation office, or plans another whirl about the country to spread the foundation's gospel of opening wide the doors of nature to children ("Did you ever see an uninterested kid in a junior museum?"). At 40, Forbes is far from through. His present targets: museums in San Mateo, San Rafael, Fresno and Stockton. Calif., and a $500,000 permanent endowment for the foundation. "If I were three people." he says. "I couldn't get done what I want done."