Every December, TIME names a Person of the Year. It’s a decision that animates the hundreds of people who work at the publication. It’s also a pretty big deal to a man named Ken Adelman. The former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and arms control director for President Ronald Reagan has every issue since 1927 framed on the walls of his Aspen, Colo., home. He has obtained 57 autographs so far.
“It’s a wonderful stroll through history,” says the 69-year-old, who started collecting the annual issue — known as “Man of the Year” until 1999 — in the early 1960s as a high schooler. Over the next 12 years the news buff ordered as many back issues as possible from TIME and combed used magazine stores for the rest.
The collection sat in the attic of his Washington, D.C. home until he shipped all 77 covers to his Aspen house in 2004 (where a hungry bear rifled through the package on the porch, damaging some of the inside pages.)
The former diplomat claims TV director Jay Sandrich (The Mary Tyler Moore Show) told him the collection was “great, but would be even greater” if he got them autographed or found autographed copies. “I went on a jihad to get signatures after that,” Adelman says.
He had a few already. When Harry S. Truman visited Grinnell College while Adelman was a student there, the younger man had the opportunity to accompany the former president on his signature morning constitutional (a walk at a brisk 120 steps-per-minute), and the politician signed a copy of the 1948 issue over breakfast. Dwight D. Eisenhower also signed the 1959 issue during a campus visit. Reagan inscribed the 1980 and the 1983 issues when Adelman worked for him. The 1999 “Person of the Year,” Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, signed the cover during a fundraiser for the Aspen Institute at Adelman’s house. He even found a creative solution to the 2006 “You” cover: Adelman, his wife, and their daughters and their husbands signed the issue.
But to snag the others, he worked his contacts. An overseas development connection got the 2014 “Ebola Fighters” issue to Liberian doctor Jerry Brown, who wrote “to a fellow Africanist” on it as a tribute to Adelman’s time spent living on the continent. When he was on the board of the International Crisis Group, someone helped him get anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela’s signature on the 1993 “Men of the Year” cover (shared with F.W. de Klerk, Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin). Former Ambassador Robert Blackwill helped Adelman get Russian President Vladimir Putin’s signature on the 2007 issue during a conference in Moscow. And a nephew of Adelman’s who worked at the Gates Foundation secured Bill and Melinda Gates‘s autographs on the 2005 “Persons of the Year” cover (“The Good Samaritans”), while Adelman personally cornered Bono after a D.C. dinner function, where the rock star “signed it and drew glasses over his face.”
The hardest autograph to get? Signatures from the 1998 “Men of the Year,” President Bill Clinton and Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel whose investigation led to Clinton’s impeachment trial. Logistically speaking, it was complicated to pull off, given Adelman himself assumed it would be a long shot to get the former president to “sign an impeachment cover” and Starr, whom Adelman calls a friend, doubting Clinton would sign anything with his name on it. So Adelman was pleasantly surprised when the cover he sent to Clinton “came back two weeks later signed ‘to my good friend.'” He sent that to Starr and told him to write, “To Ken Adelman — A good friend, now with the only cover both of us signed.”
Autograph dealers have helped him track down copies signed by deceased figures — like one from 1963 “Man of the Year” Martin Luther King, Jr. — but others are near hopeless cases.
Like Queen Elizabeth’s signature. Adelman says he was told TIME’s 1952 “Woman of the Year” only agrees to sign official documents. There are a few autographs Adelman covets above the others. The diplomat is on the hunt for autographs from Winston Churchill, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy. “I go on the Internet every day to see if there’s a signed copy,” he says. “Some day there will be.”