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Coca-Cola memorabilia to be displayed on UNC campus

Photo: Coca-Cola memorabilia to be displayed on UNC campus (Jenna Stout)
Stephen Rich, a former executive at the Coke corporation, with Coke memorabilia. The artifacts are displayed throughout The Love House and Hutchins Forum.

Stephen and Sandra Rich’s collection of Coca-Cola memorabilia began with just a few serving trays.

Now an unknown number of pieces whose dates of origin span more than 100 years make up one of the largest private collections in the country.

The couple, both UNC alumni, will display a portion of their artifacts beginning tonight at the Love House and Hutchins Forum in celebration of the 125th anniversary of Coca-Cola.

Stephen Rich worked as an executive with the Coca-Cola Co. at its headquarters in Atlanta for 30 years.

As an Atlanta native, Rich said he inherited his collecting gene from his mother.

“What company better reflects our country and the south?” he said.

The couple’s memorabilia — including a life-size cutout of Michael Jordan holding a Coke, a 1904 oval plate of the St. Louis World’s Fair and a miniature model of Stonehenge with Coca-Cola products in place of rocks — is housed in their downstairs den.

Stephen said every piece has a story.

He first saw the Michael Jordan cutout on a marketing floor near his office about 20 years ago.

Jordan was under contract to promote Coca-Cola products and Stephen had met him earlier that day.

After repeatedly asking for the cutout, Stephen finally got to take it home in his convertible.

“I had to drive with the top down and Michael hanging out the back seat,” he said.

“Needless to say, Michael and I got a lot of stares.”

Sandra Rich said she loves collecting with her husband.

“We are called incurable collectors,” she said.

Her favorite piece of the collection is an antique sign that once hung in her father’s grocery store in Atlanta.

The store stood for 45 years on property adjoining the church where Martin Luther King Jr., preached. Some of King’s children worked at the store with Sandra and her sister.

Tim Marr, an American Studies professor at UNC, will introduce the exhibit tonight.

He will teach a course next spring called “Myth and History in the American Memory.”

The course uses Coca-Cola as a case study of marketing impacting popular culture, he said.

Marr said he remembers when Coke was the only drink that vendors sold at Fenway Park in Boston, Mass.

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“The cool freshness punctuated the between-innings summer heat,” he said.

Marr said that Coke is everywhere in American popular culture — the advertisements, the memories and the iconic bottle.

“Along the way, Coke left signature traces of its flow on the material landscape,” he said.

Rich said he kept his collection for so many years to preserve memories.

“I love the stories that come with the various items — be they bottles, magazine ads, signs or sheet music — and being able to share them with others,” he said.

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