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March-April 2016

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In Memoriam: Peter A. Bancroft (1916–2015)

The sound you heard in September of this past year was that of another giant in the mineral world falling. Peter A. Bancroft was a fixture within the mineral community in the years when mineral specimens were emerging as a valued collectible. He died peacefully in his sleep on 16 September 2015 in Fallbrook, California. He is survived by his second wife, Helen; sons Edward and Robert; daughter Barbara; and granddaughters Amy, Lisa, Karla, Valerie, and Salinee.

Pete (as he was called by almost everyone) was born in Tucson, Arizona (how prophetic is that?) on 5 May 1916. His father, Roy, was a draftsman and architect. Seeing more opportunities in the “golden” state of California, Roy moved his wife, Lillian, and their family to Glendale in 1920. During Pete's growing-up years it was often the San Diego County small towns—particularly around Rincon—where families vacationed, and the Bancroft family was no exception (perhaps another one of those prophetic events because it was the area where Pete would spend the last years of his life). Pete began to poke around the area's pegmatites, and a collector emerged from his experiences in the abandoned mine tunnels and workings. While living in Glendale, Pete met Edward Swoboda, and their shared interest in “rocks” cemented their lifelong friendship. The two “buds” explored all over San Diego County and took their vacations together to collect. Between 1935 and 1939 those vacations were spent in San Benito County digging benitoite and neptunite.

Pete attended California State Teachers College (now the University of California, Santa Barbara) and graduated in 1941 with a degree in education. While there he studied under the well-known C. D. Woodhouse (woodhouseite) who taught geology and mineralogy at the school. During his college years he began to dabble in the commerce of mineral sales. His best friend, Ed Swoboda, was already prospecting in Brazil, so a pipeline of specimens was set up from Brazil to the United States. Pete did not go to Brazil with Ed because love interfered—he had just met Virginia and did not want to leave her, and he never did for the rest of her life. (Ah, you just knew I would include a love story.)

Pete also served in the U.S. Marines, although I am unsure of the years he was in service. He went on to attend graduate school in geology at the University of Southern California; University of California, Santa Barbara; and Stanford University. In 1957 he was awarded a doctorate in education administration from Northern Colorado University. His professional career included stints as a teacher, principal (at Hawthorne School in Beverly Hills where one of the students was Ed's son, little Bryan Swoboda!), and superintendent of schools in the Costa Mesa, California, school district. In the “it's a small world” category, another collector, Dr. William Sanborn (author of three mineral books), worked at the same school district and also studied with Woodhouse.

Pete's wife, Virginia, was always by his side, and they were married for sixty-one years until her death in 2002. While living in Costa Mesa he ramped up his mineral business and became well known for his Brazilian and San Diego County pegmatite specimens. He also started to set aside special pieces that would become the start of a worthy personal collection.

At one time he served as a consultant on education to the White House, a curator of mineralogy at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, and a director of collections for the San Diego Gem and Mineral Society.

After his retirement, he and Virginia moved their family to Fallbrook, California, and Pete became a well-known lecturer on mines and minerals. He traveled the world visiting the classic localities and documenting what he learned and saw, which translated into his 1984 book titled Gem and Crystal Treasures (copublished by Pete and the Mineralogical Record). His first book, The World's Finest Minerals and Crystals (published in 1973, also by the Mineralogical Record), quickly became a collectible. Both publications are now on the rare-and-hard-to-find list.

The personal collection he began to put together in the 1950s was exceptional in those days, and he most likely was the first collector to display his collection at shows, setting the course for collectors to follow. When he sold part of his collection to David Wilber in 1970, we were all taken aback by the price, which was the highest amount any of us had ever seen for specimens. At that time he was working for Pala Properties, a company started by his old friend Ed Swoboda, with Bill Larson as marketing director. He retained the core of his collection and added to it over the years. In later years he sold part of the collection, added more, than sold it again. He never had special collection labels for his specimens, so when he sold to The Arkenstone, labels were generated with Pete's name.

He was a great help in building the collection and library of the Fallbrook Gem and Mineral Society. His retirement years were spent traveling with Virginia, lecturing, writing, and welcoming collectors to his home to talk minerals. In 2003 Pete remarried to Helen Officer (known as “Sweeter”), and they continued to travel the world. Pete was also a lifelong Rotarian, and he steadfastly encouraged an interest in improving public education.

At the time of his death he was working with Peter Lyckberg, of Luxembourg, on an updated edition of Gem and Crystal Treasures, one with new localities and images. Peter Lyckberg has told me that the book will still go forward and has an anticipated release in 2016. It is sad that Pete will not be here to see its completion and also to sign our copies!

Collectors such as Pete Bancroft are rare—their sense of adventure at a time when traveling was not exactly a piece of cake, their willingness to share information, their comradery, and their approachability, for the most part, are lost in this new century. Pete Bancroft leaves behind quite a legacy from which we will all continue to benefit.

By now, we hope that he has met up with his good old buddy Ed Swoboda and that the two of them are sharing their remarkable stories. Have fun guys. …

Dona Lee Leicht and her husband, Wayne, have owned and operated Kristalle in Laguna Beach, California, since 1971.

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