The Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum

Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

Here’s a short post on my visit to the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, when taking a detour of sorts on my way back to Detroit from northern Michigan. I’m a fan of U.S. presidential museums and homes, visiting many over the years.

Statue of the 38th President. Photo by Richard Varr

I actually met Gerald Ford when he was president during a summer job as a student. I was working backstage at the Bellevue Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia, where he came to greet his campaign supporters right after his presidential debate with Jimmy Carter in 1976. Before taking the stage, he was nice enough to stop for a minute and say hello to me and two other colleagues, wishing us luck at the hotel which was previously in the news because of the “Legionnaires’ Disease” outbreak. It was a thrilling moment for me!

Replica Oval Office. Photo by Richard Varr

The museum highlights Ford’s life from childhood and college years as an exceptional student and athlete, attending Yale University Law School and his service in the U.S. Navy. And that of course was followed serving in the U.S. House of Representatives in leadership roles, as Vice President and then President.

U.S. Embassy stairwell. Photo by Richard Varr

Museum highlights include Ford’s statue outside the building, his replica Oval Office, and the actual metal stairwell once atop the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, used to evacuate the building by helicopter after Ford ended the occupation in Vietnam.

Grand Rapids. Photo by Richard Varr

Mackinac Island Revisited!

Grand Hotel. Photo by Richard Varr

On the porch of the Grand Hotel. Photo by Richard Varr

It was my third time to Michigan’s Mackinac Island last month, and this visit was just as inspiring and exciting as the last two. I have two favorite pastimes there that I spent the majority of my time enjoying on this trip – sitting on the rocking chairs atop the Grand Hotel’s 660-foot-long porch, and renting a bicycle along the scenic shoreline road circling the island. From both vantage points, the views of scintillating deep blue and Caribbean-like green hues of Lake Huron are worth every effort and dollar it takes to return to Mackinac Island.

Bicycling on the bike path ringing Mackinac Island. Photo by Richard Varr

Mackinac Island horses and carriage by Fort Mackinac. Photo by Richard Varr

And needless to say, the five-course dinners in the Grand Hotel’s main dining room were simply fabulous, and popping in and out of the fudge shops on Main Street with their tasty rich chocolate samples was a real treat as well.

Market Street, Mackinac Island. Photo by Richard Varr

Main Street on Mackinac Island. Photo by Richard Varr

During my visit two years ago, I spent a lot more time exploring the island. Here’s my post from that trip.

Richard on the Porch of the Grand Hotel!

AND, I wrote a story for Coast to Coast (RV) Magazine that was published last year (P. 16).

Click to access CTC54315+Spring+Digital+Magazine+2018.pdf



American Cruise Lines’ Grand New England Cruise: Story Published

Portland Headlight, ME. Photo by Richard Varr

‘Sea Smoke,’ Glassy Harbors and Steaming Chowder

American Cruise Lines’ American Constitution. Photo by Richard Varr

Our transport boat slowly chugs within the thick soupy fog, maneuvering around anchored sailboats, streamlined pleasure craft and rusting fishing vessels stacked with mesh lobster traps. It’s early morning in Camden, Maine while sailing atop its glassy harbor, and within minutes we’re close enough to shore to see three 150-year-old schooners berthed next to briny docks.

‘Sea smoke’ in Camden harbor. Photo by Richard Varr

“They call it sea smoke,” says our tour guide, describing the fog that often hovers atop the water. It smothers harbor islands and even drifts inland to shroud church steeples and hilly inclines.

Thunder Hole, Acadia National Park at Bar Harbor, ME. Photo by Richard Varr

Harbor in Camden, ME. Photo by Richard Varr

Street in Camden, ME.

That was the scene one early morning during my 11-day New England Grand Cruise aboard American Cruise Line’s American Constitution, on a journey that departs Boston and visits nine ports of call along the craggy shorelines of Maine, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. At several stops, I see squawking seagulls fluttering along the harbors and docks where aromas of steaming lobster and clam chowder waft within pier-top restaurants. And close by are the modest homes – although now expensive – that were once owned by the sea captains of yesteryear.

View from the deck of the American Constitution, leaving Boston. Photo by Richard Varr

Click on the below link to my story published in the August 2019 issue of Porthole Cruise Magazine, describing what I found in ports of call including Portland, Bar Harbor, Camden, Boothbay Harbor, Rockland, Gloucester, Newport, Martha’s Vineyard and Provincetown.

Click to access Porthole+NE+Cruise.pdf

Columbus, OH has the World’s Largest Cartoon Archive at OSU

Inside the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

By Richard Varr

“Calling all cars, calling all cars!”

Photo by Richard Varr

You’ll surely remember that line if you’re a comic strips buff or watched the old “Dick Tracy” cartoons on TV years ago. What about the round-faced caricatures of Charlie Brown, Lucy and Linus, and of course their canine companion Snoopy in the comic strip “Peanuts?” Batman and Superman also come to mind, as do the many other superheroes in comic books that have filled the shelves of corner candy stores and hobby shops for decades.

Inside the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

Photo by Richard Varr

These are just a few of the characters that jump back to life in the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at Ohio State University in Columbus. “Getting to see original ‘Peanuts’ artwork, original ‘Calvin and Hobbes” artwork, and discovering new titles that people have never heard of before is always exciting,” says Caitlin McGurk, the museum’s Associate Curator for Outreach and Assistant Professor. “And if you’re into political cartoons, we always have some of them on display.”

Photo by Richard Varr

Photo by Richard Varr

Comic library archives. Photo by Richard Varr

Founded in 1977, the museum is actually a research library as well housing both original and printed American cartoon art, with some international pieces. “This is the largest collection of comics and cartoon art in the world,” notes McGurk. And yes, the collection is incredible, with editorial cartoons, comic strips, comic books, graphic novels, magazine cartoons and sports cartoons. Breaking it down, she adds, holdings include 350,000 original art cartoons, 30,000 comic books, 75,000 graphic novels, over 6,000 boxes of manuscript materials, and 2.5 million comic strip clippings and newspaper pages.

Inside the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

Photo by Richard Varr

Photo by Richard Varr

Named after an early 20th century cartoonist for the Columbus Dispatch, the museum has one room as a permanent collection and two others which rotate artworks and comic strip clippings from its archives. Walking into the main gallery, I first notice the drawing table belonging to the comic artist Chester Gould, the creator of “Dick Tracy.” “This is where every ‘Dick Tracy’ comic strip was ever drawn,” says McGurk.

Chester Gould’s drawing board for ‘Dick Tracy’ comics. Photo by Richard Varr

There are also original art and clippings of “Calvin and Hobbes,” the six-year old with his stuffed tiger by artist Bill Watterson; the “Beetle Bailey” military series by Mort Walker, whose entire collection was acquired by the museum; and others including “Gasoline Alley,” “Shoe,” “Spiderman,” “Pogo” and of course, “Peanuts” by Charles Schulz. Older historic artworks include 19th century Harper’s Weekly magazine covers and 18th century British prints, to name just a few.

Photo by Richard Varr

Recent political cartoon. Photo by Richard Varr

“The fact that the museum has been here for more than 40 years means we were one of the first institutions in the world to actually start collecting this kind of material which has historically been stigmatized as not real artwork and not real literature,” McGurk emphasizes, “meaning it was not taken seriously and not worth preserving. This is a very important place, thus saving this whole part of cultural history that was kind of overlooked and disregarded.”

Inside the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

For more information:


Columbus, OH: What to See and Do

Downtown Columbus. Photo by Richard Varr

Columbus reminds me of Austin, having lived in the Texas capital city for six years. Both have a river slicing through (in Austin, it’s actually called Lady Bird Lake, a river-like reservoir) with scenic green areas and biking paths, and with capitol buildings and state offices and departments. And both have a youthful bohemian feel to them in some neighborhoods since each is home to a large university, the University of Texas and Ohio State University.

Short North Arts District. Photo by Richard Varr

Short North Arts District. Photo by Richard Varr

Short North Arts District. Photo by Richard Varr

In Columbus, one of those neighborhoods is the Short North Arts District, just north of downtown along central High Street, where nightlife sparks to life with new chic restaurants, trendy cafes and pulsing clubs attracting swarms of revelers. During the day, the chugs of cranes and other construction gear echo through the streets with new hotels and other venues in the works. Galleries and boutiques line the streets, while colorful mural art and sculptures dominate some street corners, with others tucked away in narrow alleys.

German Village. Photo by Richard Varr

German Village. Photo by Richard Varr

South of Downtown, shaded and cobbled streets intertwine within the German Village neighborhood, with restored 1800s brick houses built by arriving settlers. Central to this leafy district is Schiller Park with its green spaces, duck and swan ponds and namesake statue of a German poet and philosopher.

Actors’ Theatre headquarters, Schiller Park. Photo by Richard Varr

Umbrella Girl Statue, Schiller Park. Photo by Richard Varr

Schiller Park. Photo Richard Varr

What caught my eye in particular are the cottage-like headquarters of the city’s Actors’ Theatre, and the unique Umbrella Girl statue atop a small fountain. Mysteries abound with the statue, as it’s draped in a red cloak at Christmastime (apparently, no one has owned up to the holiday gesture), and this statue was a generous replacement from a local sculptor after the original disappeared in the 1950s. On the edge of the neighborhood, The Book Loft is packed with mostly new books within a maze of passageways and small rooms, some only as wide as a small closet.

The Book Loft. Photo by Richard Varr

National Veterans Memorial and Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

Inside the National Veterans Memorial and Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

New to the city is the rounded arena-like National Veterans Memorial and Museum along the Scioto River, where the plight of war, courage and patriotism are told through the individual stories of soldiers and volunteers – why they do it and the sacrifices they made. Exhibits include timelines of practically all the conflicts through the history of the United States, from the American Revolution through the current War in Afghanistan. Artifacts span the likes of colonial muskets and Civil War-era surgical kits to World War II radios and food rations. Soldiers’ letters from the battlefield help illuminate their desperation and sacrifices.

Inside the National Veterans Memorial and Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

Inside North Market. Photo by Richard Varr

Inside North Market. Photo by Richard Varr

Photo by Richard Varr

While in Columbus, my favorite lunch spot was the pedestrian-packed North Market. Walk by the vendor stalls teeming with Polish pirogues and dumplings, bratwurst, and vegetarian dishes including cauliflower and quinoa. Roasted chicken, hams, Yak and bison burgers, Vietnamese and Indian specialties and some sweet pastries and chocolate candies for desert add to the choices, among many more.  Are you now hungry?

Scioto Audubon Metro Park. Photo by Richard Varr

Other places to visit include the Columbus Museum of Art with its collection of nineteenth and early twentieth-century American and European modern art, as well as the works of outstanding local artists. The riverside Scioto Audubon Metro Park is a great place for hiking and bird watching, and the Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens features exhibitions including colorful flora and butterflies, among others.

Bike paths along the Scioto River. Photo by Richard Varr

For More Information:


A shout-out to my Society of American Travel Writers (SATW) colleague Anietra Hamper for her recently released travel guides, Secret Columbus: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful and Obscure, and 100 Things to do in Columbus Before you Die. They are certainly worth a look if you’re visiting!

The World’s Oldest Telescope ‘You’re Allowed to Touch’ is in Cincinnati

Cincinnati Observatory. Photo by Richard Varr

By Richard Varr

Always having a strong interest in astronomy, I was particularly thrilled when I toured the Cincinnati Observatory during my recent visit to the “Queen City” in April.  That’s because the observatory has two telescopes from the mid 19th and early 20th centuries, and has thus been called the “Birthplace of American Astronomy.”

The historic 1842 telescope, the oldest public telescope in the world. Cincinnati Observatory. Photo by Richard Varr

“It was the first American Telescope to see Neptune,” says Cincinnati Observatory astronomer Dean Regas of the 11-inch lens and 16-foot-long Merz and Mahler refractor from 1842, the oldest public telescope in the country. “It’s the oldest in the world that you’re allowed to touch,” notes Regas.

“It’s unbelievable that it’s still working after 175 years,” adds Regas, who’s also a contributor to science magazines, the author of three books and co-host of the PBS program Star Gazers. “We can attach cameras onto it and put the images on the Internet to watch at home.”

The 1904 telescope. Cincinnati Observatory. Photo by Richard Varr

The observatory’s other telescope is the 16-inch Alvan Clark and Sons refractor from 1904. Both are housed in separate buildings atop Cincinnati’s Mount Lookout, each with a domed roof and opening for views of the heavens. Counterweight mechanisms and motors gently position the telescopes, open and rotate the observatory domes, and synchronize the telescopes’ viewing positions with Earth’s rotation.

Astronomer Dean Rigas moving the telescope in the Cincinnati Observatory. Photo by Richard Varr

Astronomy buffs like me delight in knowing the telescopes can discern Jupiter’s four moons, Saturn’s rings and of course constellations and more. “You can see features on the planets – the red spot and stripes on Jupiter,” notes Regas. “You can actually see them for yourself.”

Cincinnati Observatory. Photo by Richard Varr

The telescopes of course can’t compete with modern day instruments, so the observatory is now open to the public for tours and for evening stargazing. “We made the transition from an obsolete aging research institution to an educational center,” notes Regas. “We’re only five miles from downtown so light pollution is terrible. But since we’re in a metropolitan area, why not use it to our advantage? Most of our visitors have never looked through a telescope when they look through these for the first time.”

Cincinnati Observatory. Photo by Richard Varr

Although the telescopes are historic, past astronomers never made any major breakthroughs using them except for discovering a mountain on Mars and a double star, says Revas. Nonetheless, the telescopes remain a thrill for Regas and his visitors. “We want you to come over here and put your eye up to the telescope. There’s something special about that, seeing that light yourself.”

Inside the Cincinnati Observatory. Photo by Richard Varr

“I think the best part is when seeing people look through the telescopes, you can actually see their eyes light up – their faces light up. When showing them the rings of Saturn, you can tell when they see it,” he says. “There’s always something new to discover.”

For more information:

Historic Cincinnati: ‘The Queen City’

Views from atop the Carew Tower. Photo by Richard Varr

Cincinnati dates back to 1788, right after the American Revolution, and is thus considered the first major city founded in a young United States. Its nickname stems from its growth in the early 19th century, as one newspaper flagged it, “Queen of the West.”

Carew Tower. Photo by Richard Varr

From the top floor observation deck of the 49-story Carew Tower, I imagine what the fledgling city looked like before skyscrapers dominated the downtown view. “Think about this without all the buildings,” says tour guide Janice Forte. “Everything below you was trees and fertile soils. Within 25 years of getting off the flatboats, this city grew to almost 35, 000. And at any given time from 1830 to 1900, there were maybe 100 riverboats coming and going with goods taken off the boats day and night.” Today, Cincinnati is home to the corporate headquarters of Macy’s, Kroger and Proctor & Gamble, among others.

Roebling Bridge. Photo by Richard Varr

Views from atop the Carew Tower with the PNC Tower and Roebling Bridge in the background.. Photo by Richard Varr

As a native New Yorker, I love gazing at the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge named after its civil engineer – especially at night. It’s in fact the same design as the Brooklyn Bridge, Roebling’s most famous project, opened 16 years after Cincinnati’s bridge linked the Queen City with Northern Kentucky in 1867.  The historic Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, once home to German immigrants, is noted for its 19th century architecture and many theater venues. Enthralled with history, I also visit the William Howard Taft National Historic Site – his childhood home and where he was born. Taft was the only U.S. president to also serve as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. The two-story, Greek Revival-style home has period furniture, a few original paintings and exhibits detailing his years in public service.

William Howard Taft childhood home. Photo by Richard Varr

Inside the William Howard Taft childhood home. Photo by Richard Varr

Located near the banks of the Ohio River, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center highlights the continuing struggle for civil rights and the plight of enslaved people – even today – through exhibits, paintings and more. “Our mission is to tell the story of freedom’s heroes during the era of the Underground Railroad to modern times,” says Will Jones, Marketing and Communications Manager for the Freedom Center. A must see is an authentic, restored wooden slave pen moved to the museum from Mayville, KY. “It was so well preserved because it was actually kept within a tobacco barn,” says Jones. “Tobacco soaks up a lot of moisture and that’s why it was well intact when they found it.”

Slave exhibit inside the Freedom Center.  Photo by Richard Varr

Inside the Freedom Center. The American Sign Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

Original wooden slave pen inside the Freedom Center. Photo by Richard Varr

Inside the Taft Art Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

The city’s two world class art museums include the Taft Museum of Art housed in a grand home once owned by the family of President Taft’s brother, and the Cincinnati Museum of Art, located in hilly and scenic Eden Park.

Model Cincinnati skyline of yesteryear in the Cincinnati Museum Center. Photo by Richard Varr

Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal. Photo by Richard Varr

Grandiose inside of the Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal. Photo by Richard Varr

The Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal, a grandiose art deco former train station, houses several museums and exhibits including Dinosaur Hall and The Cave, where spelunking enthusiasts can traverse twisting pathways in this replica limestone cave. Union Terminal’s rotunda is the largest half-dome in the Western Hemisphere. And neon signs, from Howard Johnson’s to the green and pink trim of a mid 20th century McDonald’s marquis, glow and buzz within makeshift storefronts in the fun and quirky American Sign Museum, featuring more than 100 years of American sign history.

The American Sign Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

The American Sign Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

For more information: