CHAMPAIGN — T.J. Blakeman knew enough Italian to read the words “Top Secret” and “Confidential” at the top of documents sitting in a banker’s box in the basement of the former home of The News-Gazette in downtown Champaign.
The box contained the World War II records of former News-Gazette publisher Michael Chinigo, an Italian count, a war correspondent in Rome and the husband of former News-Gazette owner Marajen Stevick Chinigo. What the president of the Champaign County History Museum found was shocking.
In one envelope, he found photos of former Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s dissected brain. Another held letters from Mussolini to Adolf Hitler. Blakeman knew that Chinigo had long been rumored to be involved with the Office of Strategic Services, a predecessor to the CIA, but he has no idea exactly how he came by such sensitive material.
“What I don’t know is how he came into possession of them,” Blakeman said. “That’s probably the better question. They’re on letterheads from Mussolini. He was in Rome. Did he have unfettered access to some material as everyone was leaving? I have no idea. Maybe they’re copies, maybe it isn’t so rare.”
It wasn’t the only fascinating artifact Blakeman and his small group of workers found this year at the former headquarters of The News-Gazette, which declared bankruptcy last year and was required to sell off its assets.
Traci Nally, the vice president of News-Gazette Inc., the former owner of The News-Gazette, approached Blakeman and the history museum about making a personal donation for the museum to buy the artifacts, with the understanding that they would go through all of the items in the building.
That meant wading through a building full of paintings, photos, documents, furniture, scrapbooks and more, including items that were as old as the cane that was presented to Champaign Gazette owner and editor George Scroggs by the Illinois Press Association in 1875.
“We looked under every nook and cranny, behind every door and in every closet and pulled everything down to the basement,” Blakeman said. “It was something to see it all together like that.”
In a room they nicknamed “Marajen’s closet,” a room filled with items, letters, telegraphs and other objects the countess kept, they found the guest logs from her opulent Italian villa, which included signatures from former first lady Jackie Kennedy and astronaut Buzz Aldren.
“The thing with (the Stevick) family is, they’re such eclectic people,” Blakeman said of the newspaper’s former owners, “and they had such interesting friends.”
Of course, the history museum has limited space, so Blakeman had decisions to make.
The museum will auction off many of the items it isn’t keeping through an online auction house, illinois.hibid.com. Lithographs, statues, paintings, jewelry and various other items are up for sale to the highest bidder. The auction ends at 6 p.m. Thursday.
“The threshold for us was, ‘What story does this item tell?’” he said. “And ultimately, we had to draw a line and say, ‘This is what we can take,’ which was a lot. We took a lot.”
The letters between fascist dictators will ultimately not be sold. Neither will a room full of items that tell stories about the history of Champaign-Urbana, the Stevick family and, of course, surprising secrets that sat untouched for decades in the basement of The News-Gazette.