RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — As soon as she read the news, Mary Helen Taft went straight from her computer to her closet, pulling out a gray jacket that, until that moment, she had thought was an elaborate costume.
When the story of an 80-year-old military tunic found among Superstorm Sandy debris at the Jersey Shore made national headlines, she knew the item she had picked up on consignment about 20 years ago was no longer just a run-of-the-mill coat stashed in the back of her closet.
After examining the worn-down label inside, Taft uncovered the jacket's own storied past.
"I really had no idea what the history behind the jacket was, or that it may be meaningful or valuable to somebody," said Taft, 63, who lives outside Zimmerman, Minn. "Suddenly there was a face and a history of service and a human connection that is very real and it made me see the jacket with new eyes.
"Isn't that what motivates us all — those heart-touching human connections and a sense of community?"
The alumni association for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point has researched a handful of inquiries from people wanting to put a face with their second-hand finds since the story last month about the discovery of a 1930s jacket belonging to the late warrior Chester B. deGavre. The AP reported on a New Jersey woman who found the jacket among Sandy debris, tracked down its owner with the help of the storied military academy and reunited the jacket with deGavre's 98-year-old widow on Virginia's Eastern Shore.
"Maybe they thought it was just a neat thing to have, but then it kind of got them thinking about the person behind the coat and who that person was," said Kim McDermott with the West Point Association of Graduates, who has searched alumni databases, yearbooks and memorial pages to help curious owners of the jackets, which have been used at the academy since 1816. "We're just wired for stories, as humans."
With its tails, intricate stitching, and slanted gold braids on the shoulders, the jacket hasn't changed much since it was first adopted and is still worn by cadets for formal occasions and in parades. The heavy coats, studded with brass buttons down the front and sleeves, have been issued to nearly 70,000 cadets over the years, so it's no wonder some have changed hands from their original owners.
When people buy antique china, they often wonder how many tables it's been on or what conversations took place around it. But with everyday apparel, "I don't think anyone really thinks much about it," said Adele Meyer, executive director of the Association of Resale Professionals, which represents more than 1,100 consignment and thrift stores.
"A military jacket — that's different. That has a history to it," Meyer said.
Taft has learned that the coat hanging in her closet for so many years belonged to Joseph Francis Albano, a 1971 graduate and football standout from New Jersey known as "the Jersey Streak."
After graduation, Albano was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in the Army and served five years of active duty at Fort Benning in Georgia; in Germany; and at West Point in the athletic department. Following years in the finance business, the 64-year-old now splits his time between Florida and Wyoming.
News of his jacket being found brought back a lot of fond memories for Albano of his time at the academy, which he said he admired for its rich history and tradition. Albano said he isn't sure how the jacket ever left his possession and invited Taft to contact him.
For 43-year-old Michael McCoy of Baltimore, finding the name of the owner of the jacket he picked up in the mid-1990s at a Pennsylvania antique store for $100 is only the beginning.
"It's an object that has meaning now," said McCoy, who has begun tracing the life of John Loren Goff, a 1920 graduate from New Jersey who was first assigned to the Army Coast Artillery Corps. Goff retired as a colonel from Fort Lewis, Wash., in 1953 after serving in World War II and as the base's inspector general. He died in 1985 at the age of 86.
"It was neat because it was a West Point jacket ... but now it's a West Point jacket that's owned by this gentleman who had this military career."
Two of the jackets are even appearing on stage in Connecticut for the Hartford City Ballet's inaugural performance of the holiday classic, "The Nutcracker."
Dartanion Reed, the ballet's artistic director, said he acquired the coats from another theater troupe that had shut down.
"I just thought they were a brilliant costume," Reed said. "We always say that people (in performing arts) add bells and whistles to things, but these actually have bells and whistles."
Now that Reed knows the jackets belonged to 1943 graduate Frank Williams Jones Jr. and 1937 grad Harry Francis Van Leuven, he plans to preserve them and use them more often.
"Historic preservation goes hand in hand with what we do in the performing arts every day," he said. "It's wonderful to learn where they come from."
Michael Felberbaum can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/MLFelberbaum .