If you run into Bill Atkins at the 7-Eleven near his office in Hilltop Plaza, he just might give you a dollar.
If you are a fan of the Duke, that is.
Atkins turns regular dollar bills—by covering George Washington’s image with a picture of the iconic actor—into John Wayne dollars.
“When I give people these dollar bills, you’d think I gave them $100. I spend my money doing this,” said Atkins, . “But it’s really a labor of love.”
Atkins has transformed his two-room wood-paneled office into a miniature John Wayne museum, full of the legendary actor’s movie posters and memorabilia. He has purchased much of his collection on internet sites like eBay.
But the Sherwood Manor resident is more than just a movie buff, he was an extra in a John Wayne film more than 50 years ago.
As a young marine in 1950, the Dundalk native was assigned to the set of the 1951 movie “The Flying Leathernecks,” starring Wayne. While other members of his battalion were shipped out to Korea, Atkins spent seven days a week for two months in the fall of 1950 playing a marine in the film.
After the movie wrapped, Atkins had only 11 months to serve. He was not sent overseas.
It was a role, it turned out, that may have saved his life. A number of the men he served with—in the 11th Engineer Batallion—were killed in action.
Thanks to his museum, Atkins had a chance encounter with John Wayne impersonator and former Bowie resident Dan Hornak, who uses the stage name Jake Thorne. The two met when both were waiting to snag a life-sized John Wayne display from a Hilltop plaza liquor store, after the store was finished with it.
Atkins got there first and ended up with the promotional item. When Hornak asked the store clerk who took it, he decided to walk over to Atkins’ office to meet the man the clerk said beat him to it, an act Hornak called “serendipity.”
The two forged a friendship based on their mutual interest in all things John Wayne and remain in contact. Hornak, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the actor, recently staged a three-act play about John Wayne in North Carolina, which Atkins attended.
Making the dollar bills, Atkins said, was just an idea that popped into his head one day. When his wife of 54 years died in 2009, he had a lot more time to devote to the museum.
“Since I’ve lost my wife, I’ve taken this to a whole new level. She wasn’t much of a John Wayne fan,” he said.
While eating at a Chinese restaurant with his daughter, Atkins got to talking with their waiter who told him that his father learned English from watching John Wayne movies.
“Out popped a John Wayne dollar bill,” said Atkins, with a smile.
People will ask him, he said, if he worries about getting into trouble for defacing the dollar bill.
“Let the Secret Service come and hound an old Marine over a dollar bill. I’ll go on Oprah or Bill O’Reilly’s show,” said Atkins.
A new digital sign at Hilltop Plaza which now advertises “the John Wayne Museum” has generated a lot more interest in what he's doing, Atkins said.
“I’ve always had people come by occasionally. Since they’ve put it on the sign, I get phone calls and I get three times as many people coming by,” Atkins said.