Wrestling Champ’s 105 Year Old Diploma Unearthed in Durham Art Shop


On May 26, 1910 Oscar Hobbet was a seventeen-year-old boy graduating from Eagle Grove High School. A first generation American born to Norwegian parents, Oscar grew up to be a Marine in Word War I and eventually city attorney for the small Iowa town. And on May 26, 2015–105 years to the day after he graduated high school–Oscar’s diploma was uncovered behind an old art print miles away in Durham, NC.

One of the things I love about working at an art store is meeting so many different people. Many of them are older, so their experience and range of stories are nothing short of entertaining and inspiring. One of our frequent customers at Howze Art is a local man who enjoys treasure hunting at local thrift stores. He collects old art prints, photos and the like for just a few dollars per item. This past week he brought in a lovely print of a red shouldered hawk whose frame was in need of repair. As usual, we took the artwork to clean it up and secure it better in the frame. What we didn’t expect to find was a fully intact diploma sitting comfortably in the back of the frame behind the print.

Oscar Hobbet's Diploma

Oscar Hobbet’s Diploma

Intrigued by the randomness of the object and the corresponding date, I set out to see if I could learn anything about who Oscar S. Hobbet was, and boy did I find something.

A few Google and ancestry website searches told me that Oscar was born in Illinois in 1893 to Ole and Hanna Hobbet of Norway. He graduated high school at the age of 17 and went on to the University of Iowa where he was named Big Ten wrestling champion in 1914. He later became a Marine during WWI. I found his draft card from 1917, a year prior to the war’s end, though it’s uncertain how long he served or if he saw combat. In 1921, he married Bertha Ersland, and according to The Iowa Alumnus, he was a city attorney for Eagle Grove at the time. The pair had two children, Janet and Richard.

This is Oscar

This is Oscar

Now you’re probably wondering, as was I, “how did this Iowa man’s diploma end up all the way in NC? And behind a picture of all places!” We have an idea.

Richard’s path was quite accomplished. He followed Oscar’s footsteps, attending the University of Iowa for undergrad and then law school, finishing first in his class. After successful stints in the legal business, he became a professor of personal income and corporate tax law at Duke University, making the Bull City his home for seven years. After authoring multiple textbooks and case studies, Richard died in Walnut Creek, California, six years after his older sister passed away in Gainesville.

This is the print hiding our historic treasure

This is the print hiding our historic treasure

Although we don’t know who originally owned the art print, which was engraved, printed, and coloured by R. Havell and originally in the collection of the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company, it’s our guess that Oscar’s son must have inherited it at some point and brought it to his Durham, NC home. Richard, who would have been just 9 years old when his father died, likely didn’t know the diploma was there. Judging by the condition of the document, which was extraordinary given its age, we think the diploma may have been there for most, if not all, of its life. There were no tears, bends, marks, creases or cracks anywhere, indicating it had never been folded, rolled up, or torn. The paper had yellowed due to acid from a piece of cardboard serving as backing board in the frame. While this is unfortunate for the diploma, it served as an unintentional barrier between the cardboard and the art print, keeping the print from yellowing.

It’s not often that you find such historical documents, and what makes it most interesting is how did it wind up behind a bird drawing? It’s truly a curious thing. I found it extremely exciting to see how small amounts of information find themselves tucked away and slowly come together to craft a whole picture of a person. I found Oscar’s life story through yearbooks, census records, alumni bulletins, articles and military records. Slowly, everything fit like a puzzle until we had a full idea of who he was and what he accomplished. What seemed like a simple repair led us to a historical journey through the life of not just anyone, but a military veteran, a child of immigrants, and the first individual Big Ten champion at the wrestling powerhouse we know as the University of Iowa. How amazing and lucky our customer was, and how privileged we were to help discover it.

The diploma is now safe in the hands of our customer, who was beyond surprised and excited to hear about our findings. We are staying in touch and will see if the diploma finds its ways into the hands of Oscar’s grandchildren or the archives at the University of Iowa, or if it will remain a personal treasure and ode to history for the man who found it. Either way, it was a pleasure to discover Oscar’s life and have an opportunity to reflect on the cycle of life, family, and possessions. We have no idea where our belongings may end up one day, and that idea is simply enthralling.

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