‘College of Curiosity’ shares rarities

Written By By MIKE THOMAS Staff Reporter Posted: 03/24/2014, 09:17pm
Array Jennifer Newport (right) shows Erin Field, of Chicago, a hand boiler. | Michael Jarecki/For Sun-Times Media

As a second-generation travel agent, South Loop resident Jeff Wagg leads tours to some of the most exotic places on earth: Israel, Turkey, Greece, the Galapagos Islands.

While he’s there, wherever there may be, he makes a point of veering off the beaten path and tossing out little-known morsels of knowledge to his charges. In Nassau, Bahamas, for instance, he explored an out-of-the-way bat cave and held forth about ancient pirates who’d been driven out of the area centuries before.

The 47-year-old Wagg, a native of Salem, Mass., helms these excursions because they earn him money. Perhaps even more important, they exercise his never incurious mind.

According to his pediatrician wife and occasional travel companion, Jennifer Newport, even “the most boring speck on the map” — sometimes especially the most boring speck on the map — is rife with possibility and spurs him to scour for hours online and elsewhere to determine, “What is the one interesting thing about this place?”

Over the past several years, but never more so than in the last several months, Wagg has applied his innate and relentless inquisitiveness (“he’s 99 percent on,” Newport says) to the establishment of a sideshow-like exhibit of meticulously culled oddities that he hosts as founder of the so-called College of Curiosity.

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At the core of this as yet academically unaccredited institution is Wagg’s staunch belief that nearly anything or anyone can be made interesting, if only you dig far enough below the surface.

“He’s a very skeptically minded person, and I consider that to be a very healthy attitude to have,” says James Randi, a k a “the Amazing Randi,” the renowned magician and professional skeptic whose Florida-based educational foundation Wagg helmed for several years before moving to Chicago.

On occasion, Wagg attended meetings with Randi and served as emcee during post-presentation question-and-answer sessions.

“He’s very personable,” Randi adds, “and he speaks well.”

They are qualities Wagg relies on to generate interest in what otherwise might merely be a hidden-away hobby. Still, particularly when he brings the College exhibit to various institutions and stands behind his table of assorted objects wearing an authentic pith helmet and eager to excite, it’s often tough to convince passers-by that he’s not out to sell them something.

“They are inherently distrustful,” he says, “and I can understand that. When I pump gas in Chicago, inevitably someone will come up to me trying to sell candy or something, and I don’t trust them either. So that’s a big challenge. And I try to play it fairly passively. I don’t try to be a barker unless I know people are there to see things.”

Instead of talking about everything in his collection, a process that could easily go on for hours, he asks observers what strikes their fancy.

“It’s kind of fascinating to me,” Wagg says. “What I think are the most interesting things on the table bore some people. And then the most mundane things there fascinate them. I have to be very careful not to put my own bias on things and let people decide what they’re interested in.”

He took that approach during a recent outing at the Lincoln Loft in Lake View. Displaying his wares before Chicago performer and Wagg’s “The Weekly Curio” podcast partner Thom Britton ate fire and danced on glass during the one-man extravaganza “FreakShow & Tell,” Wagg gave background on, answered questions about and did demonstrations with such little-seen rarities as a century-old tin pie pan that inspired the Frisbee, a “zero blaster” that puffed out perfect purple smoke rings, a glass “hand boiler” he found floating in the sea, a Wimshurst machine that generated static electricity using a hand crank (no touching!), a homemade version of Benjamin Franklin’s lightning detector, exotic rocks and a small but heavy brass ball that rolled sluggishly down a tilted wooden cutting board.

Some of his items are purchased online, and Wagg is a fan of American Science & Surplus on North Milwaukee. He also is in the process of setting up an Amazon.com curiosity shop of sorts on his website, collegeofcuriosity.com.

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Wagg wasn’t always so curious. Or if he was, it didn’t consume him, as it now seems to. As America Online’s 400th employee, Wagg says, he “made a good amount of money,” which enabled him to retire from his programming post in 1999. But the cash didn’t last.

“Like many of these Internet millionaire folks, we went through the money pretty quick and found ourselves back to being normal folks,” he says of himself and his first wife. (Newport, whom Wagg wed in 2012 after they met on an ocean cruise he hosted in the Bermuda Triangle, is spouse No. 2.)

Upon returning to college and finishing his degree in liberal studies at Georgetown in Washington, D.C. (he’d been enrolled at seven colleges before that), Wagg says he entered graduate school at the University of Vermont for mental health counseling but dropped out after roughly a year because the program “just didn’t feel honest.”

Thereafter, during a 2005 Skeptic’s Society conference in California, a $150 contribution to the organization earned him a ticket to former “Saturday Night Live” cast member (and current Chicago suburbanite) Julia Sweeney’s then-new show, “Letting Go of God,” and the private fundraiser that followed at her home.

That’s where Wagg met Randi. He also crossed paths with the former games column editor of Omni magazine, who began introducing Wagg to the world of strange objects and showed him how to “source” them.

But there’s more to it than business and entertainment, Newport says.

“He has some even loftier hopes that by inspiring curiosity you’re not just inspiring learning, but making people better to each other — making them feel emotionally better. By being curious about the world, it can keep you [more] engaged in the world. It can make you more philanthropic, because you’re more interested in what’s going on in other people’s lives.”

Email: mthomas@suntimes.com

Twitter: @MikeTScribe

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