By JILL DIAMOND | Uptown News
Carmen Cooley-Graham is on a mission to keep her late father Jim’s legacy — the JA Cooley Museum in University Heights — alive.
The 10,000-square-foot museum with more than 25 various collections is located at 4233 Park Blvd. Since 1997, it has shared thousands of unique items ranging from an extensive collection of trains to more than 3,000 cameras, phonographs, 100-plus-year-old cars and typewriters.
“The museum displays significant technological advancements with a focus of 1800 to early 1900s. It shows how far we have come and how someone’s dream became our reality. It’s a way for families to come together and share memories of the past. It’s also just a great place to get away — your own time machine,” said Cooley-Graham, who has taken over as its curator.
Her dad, of course, was well known throughout the community and much of San Diego for his quick wit, ability to listen and entertain visitors when they stopped by. He died in October and Cooley-Graham said the family wants the museum to continue.
Jim also headed up the 1943 Frank the Trainman Shop since 1983 — the historic neon sign still lights up Park and El Cajon boulevards — and is located across the street from the museum. It sells a variety of train paraphernalia for collectors as well as hobbyists.
Why carry on rather than close the doors?
“We are a historical foundation and have a 501(c)(3) and our focus is on San Diego history and the education and preservation of inventions,” said Cooley-Graham, who is one of 13 siblings. “I feel that with our historical roots, extensive private collections and knowledge, we can add value to the community. We do no advertising and we get thousands of visitors a year from all over the world. We hope to expand our attendance and bring opportunities to the neighborhood.”
Cooley-Graham said her dad was a collector his entire life and a native San Diegan who grew up in Kensington. He and her mom Carmen opened the museum in 1997 and “they spent almost every day for 23 years at the museum. It was his passion.”
Because he collected items early on and throughout his life, most of what visitors see in the museum are items he had in his house or warehouse.
“It was his dream to open a museum. The opportunity came to buy the building we are in so he just opened a museum,” she said. “We have something for everyone plus many of the displays are of unique or prototypes. Much of our collection has strong San Diego roots.”
What makes this place special and one folks would want to visit is that it is open for all.
“We have something for everybody; it’s a cross-generational experience. We get visitors from all over the world as there is nothing like our collection under one roof. It’s 25 museums into one,” she said.
As for how she became the curator she said: “I was born into this insanity; how many kids can say their parents own their own museum?”
“My heart is to keep the memories alive of not only my father but of the older generation,” she said. “In my dad’s last interview and previous ones, it was his goal and dream that his legacy passes on through the family. This is his gift to a community that he loved and was part of for over 80 years he wouldn’t have it any other way.”
— Jill Diamond is a local freelance reporter with a penchant for history.