John Hoatson recalls the day it all began with perfect clarity.
His mother woke him when it was barely light outside on July 29, 1981, telling the 8-year-old there was something he needed to see "for historical purposes."
Along with an estimated 750 million others around the globe, he planted himself in front of the TV for hours as the wedding of Lady Diana and Prince Charles unfolded across the pond.
"I fell in love with (Diana) right then. She was the prettiest person in the world," Hoatson, now 44, said. "I followed her entire life. I loved her humanitarian work. I had a photo of her on my nightstand throughout college."
Hoatson, an alumni director for Keiser University, is now owner of an extensive collection of items related to Princess Di and the royal family, filling his Fort Lauderdale home with more than 13,000 pieces. In 2011, a museum valued the collection at $500,000.
The Tampa Bay Times spoke to him by phone to find out more.
Where does it all come from?
When Diana died, I started writing to people who knew her with the hope of gathering signatures, along with a portfolio of remembrances from people who knew her. Along the way, people started sending other things, starting with her friend and confidante Simone Simmons sending me signed birthday cards, Diana's T-shirt and a notepad Diana got when she vacationed at the K Club in Barbuda in 1996. I also have a bar of soap from that trip that Diana had washed her hands with. I think it helps that people know I'm not going to sell any of it. That's not what this is about. ... Of course, much of it comes from various auction houses.
What's your favorite piece?
I think the slice of their wedding cake. It's fruitcake. It will never get old. It's preserved by the air. I sent the cake to England and the box was signed by two of her bridesmaids, India Hicks and Clemmie Hambro, who was of course her littlest bridesmaid at 5 years old. I really like the letters and cards. She was a huge card writer. I have an engagement letter from right after she was engaged to Charles. It's signed "Lady Diana."
Have you tried the cake?
No, and everyone asks me that. But it's 36-year-old fruitcake, and it looks really bad.
What was the most difficult piece to obtain?
It took me seven years to finally get a tiny swatch of fabric from Stephen Walters & Sons from her dress. ... The swatches are from the same bolt of fabric, the taffeta that made her wedding dress.
What's the market like for Diana items right now?
It's hard this year with the anniversary, because people are trying to cash in on it, and as time goes on since her death it's going to get harder and harder to find things. I've seen signed pictures of her, and people are asking $20,000, or cards are going for $8,000. I look for things that are affordable. I want to reflect that she was Princess of Wales, and the Duchess of Cornwall, but also a mother.
Why are you doing this?
I want to do my part to preserve history and Diana's story so that we learn from it. I remember that morning of the wedding in 1981, my mother said to me, "These are the people we fought in the revolution." I thought, "Wow, they still have the pomp and pageantry. And carriages!" They're so tied into their history, and we're such a young nation. It fascinated me. I'm really hoping I can travel to England later this month for the anniversary. I went in 1996, and tried so hard to track her down, so I could see her somewhere, but I never did. Buckingham Palace has her desk on display. I'd want to see that.
You went to Beverly Hills and had a private tea with Sarah "Fergie" Ferguson. What do you talk about with the Duchess of York?
The tea was a very special occasion. We arrived at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif. She came around 4:30 p.m. She wore no makeup and looked amazing. We spoke about Diana and the collection. We also spoke about events and charity work that she did at the time. It was an honor to be introduced to her dresser.
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