Doug Klawsnik didn't realize when he swiped a banner back in 1959 during the centennial celebration of the founding of Virginia City, that he would be saving a piece of history.
That event lasted three days and featured, among many other events, a parade, a U.S. postage stamp in honor of the Comstock delivered by Pony Express and even a visit by then-Vice President Richard Nixon and his wife, Pat.
C Street was closed from Carson Street to the Fourth Ward School as more than 20,000 people attended the celebration, according to a report in the Territorial Enterprise.
Klawsnik, then 20 and living in Carson City, and a friend joined the crowds on June 12, 1959. As they were heading home, they spotted the banner.
"A friend of mine and I were up there to enjoy the festivities and it got pretty dark. As we started to walk back to my car, we saw a banner hanging by one strip from a telephone pole," he said. "Nobody was around, and I figured it would be a nice souvenir. So I took it off and stuck it in the trunk of the car and took it home."
He knew he couldn't hang it up or he might face prosecution for taking it, so he put it away in a box, where it stayed for the next 30 years.
Klawsnik retired in 1989, and, like many retirees, started going through the things he had accumulated. Eventually he found the banner and had an attack of conscience.
"I thought, 'this needs a better home than with me,'" he said.
So he took the banner up to Virginia City in November of 1990, to the Comstock History Store owned by local writer and historian Chic DiFrancia and his partner, Carol Clifford.
DiFrancia was excited about the banner, Klawsnik said, so he just gave it to him. DiFrancia wrote a little story for the local newspaper and donated the banner to hang in the Storey County Senior Center, where Klawsnik saw it on a return trip.
But the senior center staff decided at some point to put the banner away, so it ended up in a box of rags in the center's attic.
There it stayed until last week, when DiFrancia, helping to plan Virginia City's sesquicentennial celebration in 2009, wanted to design a new banner in the same style as the old.
DiFrancia and Clifford dug through nearly every box in the senior center attic before locating the banner, in near pristine condition. He was not upset about how Klawsnik acquired the banner and was grateful for its return.
"Thank God he took it," DiFrancia said. "Had he not taken it, I can pretty much guarantee this wouldn't be around. That's an important piece of Comstock history."
After locating the banner, DiFrancia looked up the celebration stories on microfilm at the Nevada State Archives, as well as his own story. He then contacted Klawsnik, who was pleased the banner was still in good shape and joked about maybe getting it back.
"I told him in that case, I wanted it back to take to 'Antiques Roadshow,'" Klawsnik said.
Instead of a television spotlight, DiFrancia said, the banner will be donated to the Comstock Historic Center in Virginia City.
Bert Bedeau, administrator for the center, was equally excited about the banner, though he wants to get some advice from an expert in historic textiles before displaying it.
"We don't have a climate-controlled curation facility here," he said. "We don't have the humidity control to handle fragile artifacts like textiles. I don't want to endanger the artifact - it's an important artifact."
Bedeau said the banner looks as good as the day it was made, and had no problem with the fact that it was originally pilfered from the town.
"That's how history gets saved," he said. "People liberate things in the name of the revolution."
Bedeau's attitude was comforting to Klawsnik.
"This is all very fun for me to look back at this and see that it's gotten a home after all these years," he said. "It makes me feel like a rescuer, to redeem my act of stealing it in the first place."
• Contact reporter Karen Woodmansee at firstname.lastname@example.org or 882-2111 ext. 351.