Michael Petras had served in the United States Army, graduated from DePaul University and was working as a bartender in Chicago when an accident in 1997 changed his life in ways he could never have imagined.
Petras was traveling to Alaska on his 1967 BMW motorcycle when a police officer in Nebraska pulled him over, chatted about Alaska, then handed him a ticket, saying it just might save his life. Petras went to a coffee shop and hung around for a while, then continued his journey. About 4 a.m., trucks started zipping past him on the highway, one causing him to hit the soft shoulder of the road and tumble 30 feet into a ravine. He was wearing a helmet and just missed hitting a concrete wall, but 85 percent of his foot was severed.
According to the police report of the accident, which was classified as a hit and run, the trucker who hit him stole the saddlebags from Petras’ bike, then anonymously called the police in the next town to report the accident.
“I walked out of there carrying my leg. If he hadn’t stopped and called, I’d be dead,” says Petras.
After difficulties stemming from the accident, the VA wound up removing his leg, replacing it with a prosthetic limb. Instead of a deterrent, however, Petras says the surgery opened up a whole new world.
“Four months later, I was on my way to Korea,” he says. “I had some Canadian friends who were teaching there. I learned to walk well with the prosthesis and decided to travel.”
He hitchhiked to Seoul and took the ferry to China, then spent the next 12 years traveling across Asia, spending time in places such as Tibet, Nepal and India. He spent three years in Japan.
“Once I got out west, it was all hitchhiking when I realized how easy it was,” he says.
One day, after catching a ride in a Chinese-made truck, he saw a patch of rug on which the driver was sitting. He liked the rug so much he asked the driver if he could purchase it, and did.
“That rug was the beginning of my interest in textiles. The farther out west I got, the more I began to study Tibetan culture and history. I recognized that the textiles of a country define its culture, unlike western societies. For example, there are knots used in rug making that are unique to Tibet. It’s one of the last cultures not to be westernized,” says Petras.
Petras had always had an affinity for vintage clothing and stamp collecting, which fueled his interest to learn more about the textiles of the countries where he traveled.
“Collecting stamps also inspired me to study textiles. When I was collecting stamps, I always read about the country the stamp came from and learned about the history and culture of that country,” he says.
In February, Petras opened The Antique Textile Museum at 5125 Gulfport Blvd. S., which showcases his vast collection of textiles including antique rugs, artifacts, photos and vintage clothing from his travels. His museum is open for tours, and he is working towards 501(c)(3) designation. Petras also hopes to get other area museums involved.
“I have one of the best collections of textiles in the world, and I love to educate people about them,” he says. “But I’m happy and comfortable here. The whole point of moving back to America was to enjoy life without a backpack. The museum makes all of it possible.”
Learn more at antiquetextilemuseum.com or find the museum on Facebook.