Wichita State’s first lady collects Fiestaware, dollhouses

02/23/2013 7:08 AM

02/23/2013 7:24 AM

Deborah Bardo, the new first lady of Wichita State University, is a collector. But unlike some collectors who keep taking in, and eventually have to relegate their finds to boxes, rarely to be seen, Bardo puts limits on her collecting that somehow make it more meaningful – and accessible.

Who knows what’s in the attraction that makes us collect certain things? For Bardo, the hunt is always on for vessels that have spouts and handles. More particularly, pieces of Fiestaware that you can hold and pour.

Which means she wouldn’t have the sugar bowl, for instance. It has handles – but no spout.

But sauce boats, ice-lip pitchers, coffee pots, water carafes (both the kind that comes with a lid and the kind that comes without a lid), disc pitchers in three sizes, 2-pint jugs, teapots and creamers – she has those covered, to the tune of 107 pieces.

Not that she has all of them in all colors, mind you. The one piece that has the greatest representation of colors is the mini disc pitcher – in 29 hues. She’s missing only two colors in the mini disc – gray and sea mist green.

And what’s holding her back from owning those two? you might ask. You could probably go online and find the pitchers she lacks – but then you’d hit another limit to her collection.

Bardo buys only in person.

“If you have a major chip, it takes the value down by 50 percent,” she said. “We were told by someone you should always close your eyes and feel them. You can pick up little bumps and imperfections.”

Bardo is the wife of WSU president John Bardo (pronounced BAR-dough), who took over the position from retiring Don Beggs last summer. Deborah grew up in Wichita and met John when they were both at WSU. Her sister, Valerie Davis, also lives here and is a fifth-grade teacher at Irving Elementary School. Deborah Bardo tutors her students in math and reading.

WSU’s first lady displays her Fiestaware collection on the shelves flanking the fireplace in the large room that was added to the president’s house several years ago for entertaining.

“This is the best party room I’ve ever been in,” Bardo said.

She has used the Fiesta mini disc pitchers as vases at place settings for parties, has called a couple of gravy boats into service at Christmas and uses a little red creamer for syrup. Otherwise she leaves the glazed ceramic dinnerware on display, rearranging it from time to time and adding to it only when a shopping trip turns up a find.

To get the items she already has, “I didn’t push any little old ladies down. I’ve been in some pretty dusty antique shops, though. You want to wash your hands when you’re done looking.”

In her time back in Wichita so far, she’s enjoyed shopping at the east and west Paramount antique malls, the Flying Moose and Andover Antiques. She always shops for Fiesta when she’s on vacation. She also hears that garage sales are good places to look for Fiestaware, “but I don’t have time.”

Bardo takes an interest in the history of the Fiestaware pieces. The dinnerware was made from 1936 to 1972 before production stopped (consider the dull colors at the time, she says: antique gold and “that awful” turf green). The Homer Laughlin China Co. of Newell, W.Va., resumed making the dishes in 1986, and it continues to make them here in the United States. Bardo likes all the colors – “it’s the multitude of colors that make it fun” – but says the cobalt blue may be her favorite. That would be the original cobalt – not the newer hue, which is darker.

Her favorite piece – for right now anyway – may be the water carafe without lid. “They’re so pudgy.”

“This is a fun one,” she said, reaching for a 1936 creamer that has a stick handle. “If you’re left-handed, you can’t pour cream out of it, which is probably why they stopped making it.”

Bardo has allowed herself only one place setting of Fiestaware, but she can’t help but notice the deals on them at Dillard’s. “They’re very inexpensive. They’re fun – the color combinations you can do with them.”

In the adjacent dining room, Bardo has another quite different collection – that of dollhouses that she’s made.

“I always wanted one as a child, and I decided I’d have one as an adult,” Bardo said of the dollhouses. She’s made five, and all but one are at the president’s house. The fifth, a model of the historic Hooper House in Sylva, N.C., that she made from scratch, is still in Carolina. The other dollhouses were made from kits.

“You can tell I like toys,” Bardo said, indicating the detailed furnishings in the little houses. She’s made some of the items, including a high-backed settle and a needlepoint area rug, and purchased the others. Her favorite item: a tiny pull toy in the form of a gorilla attached to a string.

She also has a few pitchers – handles and spouts – that are not Fiestaware, but that collection is closed.

“There’s a fine line between collecting and hoarding. … I would probably collect everything. I’ve got to control it.”

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