Nathan Smith is one of three adults in Urbandale who has a unique relationship with his toy collection. Each man has found a connection to his past in the form of toy collecting and, in Smith’s case, toy building. From hobbyist to custom builder, these boys still love their toys.
When Smith was in fifth grade, he suffered from a case of ADHD that no amount of medicine would help. One of the self-help remedies suggested was finding something to do with his hands so his racing mind was occupied. Smith then discovered how to remove a simple screw from the back of his favorite G.I. Joe figure, allowing him to take it apart and recreate custom action figures of his own imagination. Smith’s restless hands have been occupied since.
For more than 20 years, Smith has been creating custom G.I. Joe figures. He is a former English teacher who did his student teaching at Urbandale Middle School. Interest in G.I. Joes and comics was a buffer during the teaching portion of Smith’s life.
“When I was student teaching, it helped me relate,” he says. “I could talk to kids about action figures and the comics they read. It helped bridge the gap so that they could trust me and talk about their problems at school.”
Sometimes Smith will spend more than two weeks on a complicated rebuild. Each G.I. Joe contains dozens of tiny parts most of us don’t even realize. He paints and reconstructs each part to his own liking in his quasi studio, boiling water, glue, paint and toothpicks by his side. A tiny detail like an eye requires hours of intense painting concentration.
“The weirdest ability I’ve gained from this is being able to identify specific G.I. Joes with my eyes closed,” Smith says.
He is not alone in his G.I. Joe building hobby. There’s a niche of creative G.I. Joe customizers who recreate the popular Army figure in great detail. According to Smith, skilled artists recreate G.I. Joe in more detail than the original manufacturers.
The 28-year-old has genuine interest in the hobby and gaming industry, so much so that he’s turned it into a career at Game Stop. He’s the manager at the Merle Hay Mall branch, calling it a career he couldn’t pass up. The video game store is a melting pot for fellow action figure enthusiasts. Smith will often create figures based on video game characters and then offer them as prizes to customers.
What began as a hobby to tame symptoms of ADD turned into a philanthropist effort for the gregarious Smith. He shows off a proud set of Avengers recently auctioned off for a breast cancer awareness charity: Captain American, Ironman and Hulk, all fitted with pink outfits.
Smith shares a story of living in Cedar Rapids in 2008 when floods devastated the city. At that time, his personalized G..I Joes were fetching top dollar at charitable auctions for the benefit of the Red Cross.
Besides video games and charity, Smith finds inspiration in fiction — writing, not reading. He would love to write fiction for a living, his fantasy characters coming to life on both the page and as action figures.
He considers himself both a collector and builder of action figures. Smith speaks knowledgeably about the toy trade. He knows when and where the best collectibles reach Des Moines, if at all. He competes with scalpers for collectibles in Iowa, indicating that the dash to collect is made difficult by the limited supply available locally.
“Scalpers make it hard to hobby sometimes,” he says.
Seven years ago, Smith used his G.I. Joe building hobby to escape a potentially life-threatening situation. Doctors discovered cancerous cysts on his spine, which required three different surgeries to remove. Smith was laid up at the hospital, once for an entire month. He passed the time by hyper-focusing on building action figures, something he credits with helping in recovery.
“I built a lot back then,” he says.
Smith has a sentimental favorite in his action figure collection. As a child, he appeared on the television show Fox Kids Club where he won an action figure on air. The toy was called the Interrogator and came equipped with a helicopter.
He still has the original Interrogator but set about to recreate his childhood prize when he found an identical figure at the flea market. Now there are two Interrogators in Smith’s collection.
Remarkably, Smith is able to show off a remake of hundreds of original G.I. Joes fit with modern military gear. Each individual piece has the personal touch of a lifetime hobbyist.
As for what exactly drives his passion for toys, Smith is hesitant to sound melodramatic, but continues:
“I think that part of it is holding on to something that we enjoyed, something we had control over,” he says. “I like being able to think ‘I want to make that’ and then be able to do it.”
Dave Zaavel is a friendly retiree and toy collector who moved to Urbandale in 2008. If you want to talk toys, Zaavel will happily have you over for sack lunch and talk all afternoon. His passion for farming is evident in his collection of toy farm equipment, which fills the entirety of his climate-controlled basement.
Zaavel has been collecting farm toys since he started traveling the Midwest toy circuit in 1975. He grew up on a farm in Fort Dodge and now says he owns a model for every tractor, elevator and combine he encountered growing up.
“I’m a flea market nut,” Zaavel says. “I want to be the first guy in the door when it opens up.”
The ageless piece from Zaavel’s collection is a John Deere tractor he faintly remembers playing with at his own grandmother’s house. He’s proud of another antique tractor in his possession, which was produced by the Avery Company in 1910.
While farming equipment makes for the predominant portion of his 3,000-plus toys, Zaavel also owns a multitude of trucks and model construction equipment.
Like many antique toy collectors, Zaavel points out the major differences between toys made pre- and post-World War II. He describes the period of time when the U.S. government held scrap iron drives, exchanging war bonds with citizens for whatever metal they could offer. Into the caldron went many cast iron model toys, hence limiting the supply and making them “very collectible” to Zaavel.
Having followed the toy industry closely for almost four decades, Zaavel has an appreciation for each era of reproduction. The new die-cast toys, Zaavel says, are made with much greater detail compared to the past. He spots a similarity in the way plastic has been integrated in both toys and real farm equipment. Many parts that are plastic on the real thing are also plastic on his miniatures.
If Urbandale residents would like to see part of Zaavel’s collection, it’s on display in diorama form behind the host stand at the Machine Shed Restaurant at Living History Farms. Zaavel’s friendship with the Machine Shed is one of many he’s formed over a common interest in toys.
His ties to Des Moines include a strong bond with local toy stores. Tracy Johnson, owner of Iowa Diecast Toys, counts Zaavel as her very first customer.
“There’s always pieces I’m looking for,” he says.
Terry Williams is a charitable and religious man who works retail in the Urbandale community. He likes the idea of completing a set of anything. His collecting days date back to the original era of Thundercats, G.I. Joe and Garbage Pail Kids. Now his pursuit focuses on Beanie Babies.
“I’ve always been a toy collector,” Williams says.
Williams owns more than 100 Beanie Babies acquired during the course of many years. He purchased his first dozen in bulk from a thrift store and then filled his collection one special toy at a time. His most valuable stuffed animal is a rare Osito Bear, which has fetched four-figure bids on eBay.
Williams is naturally creative; his other hobbies include sketch art. He shows off pictures of his drawings, one of which decorates a store front on MLK Boulevard in Des Moines.
Williams enjoys entertaining bids for his Beanie Babies but acknowledges that he gives quite a few of them away to kids in his extended family. Each Beanie Baby comes with a hypothetical birthday and name, something Williams feels personifies the toy and adds a sense of responsibility.
He says he even takes time to match specific animals to kids and their interests. Williams has given away more of the stuffed toys than he can recall. His ever-changing Beanie Baby collection loses and gains members almost daily.
“I like collecting and giving these away because there’s a Beanie Baby for everybody,” he says.