Michael Tesoriero started collecting newspapers in 1970 when Ohio National Guardsmen fatally shot four Kent State University students.
"My mother collected the Kennedy assassination and moon landing newspapers," Tesoriero said. "When the Kent State massacre happened, I picked the paper up because I was part of the hippie generation and it was a major event to us. . . . And I started collecting newspapers."
Tesoriero, 66, owns 2,800 papers dating to a 1927 Augusta (Ga.) Herald with coverage of a scheme to rig the World Series.
Now the Farmingville resident is taking the collection on the road in the form of a mobile Newspaper Museum backed by an online archive.
And that's just the beginning of his plans to preserve newspapers and get people around the world more interested in history.
"When you can pick up an antique newspaper, such as one on Pearl Harbor when it was attacked, it's a thrill just to be able to hold it," he said.
When he takes his papers to senior citizens, Tesoriero points out that "this is the news of their time. Their eyes light up."
His most recent visit was last week to the Atria Senior Living complex in Plainview, where about 30 residents gathered to hear him talk and examine the newspapers spread across tables. Residents were captivated by the front pages showing the Kennedy assassination or the deaths of celebrities such as Princess Diana.
"It is amazing," Shirley Sherlag, 89, said of the collection. "It brings back good memories and bad memories."
When he began collecting, Tesoriero explained, "it was just whatever I saw that caught my attention." Over time, he began to concentrate on specific topics such as celebrity deaths, politics, major crimes and sports highlights.
He first began to share the collection with others in a bricks-and-mortar museum in Riverhead. Tesoriero, an Army veteran who was a food service worker for Grumman Aerospace for 17 years, started off as a book collector when he was young. "Later on when I moved into an apartment and needed furniture, rather than go to Macy's I went to antique stores and the Salvation Army and started bringing home antiques. After five years of doing that, I loved it so much that I became an antiques dealer" in 1969.
Three decades later he bought a house in Riverhead, divorced, moved to Farmingville and met someone who wanted to go into business with him. They decided to make a museum out of Tesoriero's newspaper collection in 2007.
"We laid down $3,000, rented a building," he said. It was behind a diner on East Main Street in Riverhead, and they called it Memory Lane.
They hoped to make a living from admission fees, but, he said, "it was difficult to get people to come into the museum because they didn't know what it was. And we weren't very easy to find." So after three months, they gave up and tried again the next year in St. James, again lasting only three months.
But the experience produced two eureka moments. A college professor suggested that because the papers were too fragile for people to handle, Tesoriero should have them photographed and put online so people could read every page. "I said, 'That's a great idea.' " He started to have the papers photographed for his website, newspapermuseum.com, an effort being aided by the East Hampton Library.
The other idea was to make the collection mobile because "we weren't getting the volume of people we wanted," Tesoriero said.
So four months ago, after creating a nonprofit organization, he and his supporters started the mobile museum, traveling so far to 14 senior citizen housing complexes with hundreds of papers stacked in milk crates.
Tesoriero said he supports his travels and Web work through donations and his Social Security checks.
"Someday when you can't buy a newspaper, you can always go to the online museum," he said. "I would like to build one museum in each of the 50 states and museums all across the world," Tesoriero said, each focused on local newspapers to provide an educational resource for the local populations.
"I want to use this as a learning tool," he said. " . . . The children will be able to go back in time and do reports."
Ruth Rosenblatt, 95, a self-described lifelong newspaper reader, agreed with Tesoriero that the disappearance of printed newspapers would be a loss for society. "There's so much to be learned from a newspaper. I feel it's talking to me."