TERRE HAUTE —
There’s an essay-type question that shows up on history exams, college applications, “Saturday Night Live” skits and quite possibly requests for platinum credit cards. The question goes something like this: “If you could sit down and have dinner/pizza/a beer with two famous people, who would be your choices?”
Now think about this exercise in historical imagination with changes along these lines: “If you had the opportunity to escort two renowned athletes on a tour of Terre Haute’s world-class Eugene V. Debs Museum, which two athletes would you choose?”
Maybe you would opt for two guys with personal integrity and grit (like Debs). Maybe your draft choices would lean toward team players (like Debs), guys who could lead (like Debs) but guys who knew sacrifice for the whole is a quality every leader possesses (like Debs).
Maybe you would choose guys like Bill Walton and Larry Bird.
Good choices. Walton and Bird are famous athletes, though they are very different in their public personalities. Walton is irrepressible, and Bird is more guarded and retiring (Debs could be both). Both are solid individuals who know the difference between surface and substance. (As Debs proved to all during his long political career).
It was my personal pleasure to guide Walton and Larry and Dinah Bird through the Debs Museum. (We were accompanied by the able director of this local jewel of a museum, Karen Brown.) This visit took place on the Sunday morning immediately following the Saturday dedication of the Larry Bird statue at Hulman Center. Thanks go out to Tribune-Star reporter David Hughes. He had written a story on Bird’s years with the Celtics, mentioning Walton’s knowledge and interest in Debs. Walton was contacted and offered a tour of the Debs Museum. The Big Red Head jumped at the offer.
When I arrived to pick up Walton for the tour, I was slightly floored to hear him ask if it was all right if Larry Bird and his wife Dinah (a graduate of Schulte High School and Indiana State University) could come along. Needless to say, this was one of the easiest “coaching” decisions I’ve made in my life.
What was this museum visit like for these celebrity sports heroes who, at least in our minds, live and work in such different worlds?
I can’t speak for Walton and Bird, of course. I can only report that they both showed deep interest and fascination in Debs’ home and his personal and political life. The museum holds many period artifacts, photos and newspaper clippings of great events in Debs’ life, and tributes and copies of letters to Debs from across the nation and around the world. These ISU and UCLA grads examined it all, with curiosity and concentration.
Bird seemed particularly interested in the fact that Eugene V. Debs was a native Hoosier, born and bred in Terre Haute, and that as a young man had worked for Hulman & Co. Walton spent some time looking over the list of distinguished recipients of the Debs Award, an honor bestowed on a person whose life work has been in concert with the ideals of Eugene V. Debs. He noted the names of people given this award each year over the past 51 years (what a great tradition this is!) by the Debs Foundation. Walton specifically pointed out the names of Pete Seeger, Correta Scott King and Howard Zinn.
The first Debs Award recipient was in 1965 and went to John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers. I think Larry asked Bill, “Wasn’t Havlicek’s father a coal miner?” The two stars pondered this as they recalled the famous Celtic small forward from an earlier era. I think this thoughtful question says a lot.
Walton and the Birds spent a full hour and a half visiting all three floors of this great museum. This was not a step in, step out visit for them.
Here’s another question asked (I believe by Larry Bird) while on the tour. Debs, as every Hautean should know, ran for president five times. Even at the turn of the 20th century candidates were expected to meet, speak with and press the flesh of voters and supporters. This meant extensive travel.
“How [I’m paraphrasing from memory] did Debs get around back then? How many miles did he travel on political and union organizing campaigns?”
Think about this question and think about the endless travel, the long waits in many cavernous air and train terminals, the myriad cookie-cutter hotel rooms Walton, Bird, and, yes, Debs, endured.
Monuments, museums, statues, history speaks to us. Bill Walton and Larry Bird found much in the Debs Home Museum that spoke to them. When was the last time you visited this wonderful museum and listened to what it has to say?
Gary Daily retired from Indiana State University as Associate Professor of History, Women’s Studies and African American Studies in 2000. He has been a member of the Eugene V. Debs Foundation since coming to Terre Haute in 1970. Though not much of a sports fan today, he attended every ISU home game during the Larry Bird era. Bill Walton is easily his favorite vegetarian, anti-Vietnam War college All-American.