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January 26, 2014

Flowing forward: As Riverscape leader retires, he sees great things ahead for the Wabash River

An iconic photo of Harry Truman hangs in John Mutchner’s office.

The walls of that room and others inside Mutchner’s scenic eastside home offer glimpses of his interests, from auto racing to basketball to political history. The famous picture of a triumphant Truman, hoisting an erroneous “Dewey Defeats Truman” Chicago Tribune headline, rests neatly framed alongside a 1952 campaign button and an autographed notecard from the former president.

It tells a story about Mutchner, too.

As an Earlham College student in the 1950s, Mutchner traveled to Missouri to watch the national basketball tournament for small colleges. While there, he realized Truman kept an office in the top floor of a downtown building in Kansas City after his eight years as president ended. Mutchner decided to visit, hoping to get Truman’s autograph. Once there, Mutchner reached the right floor, trekked to the end of the hall and saw a sign on the door that read: “Harry Truman, walk in.”

“So I did,” Mutchner recalled.

After the young collegian took a seat and got an intense look-over from a Secret Service agent, the president strolled in. Truman greeted Mutchner and asked what brought him to Kansas City.

The small talk subsided, and Mutchner asked the president for an autograph. Truman obliged, writing, “Best wishes to John Mutchner. Harry Truman 3/10/55.” Mutchner headed back to the tournament, objective accomplished.

Initiative has continued to serve Mutchner well for nearly six decades.

Last week, he stepped down after nine years as president of the nonprofit Wabash River Development and Beautification organization — better known around Terre Haute as “Riverscape.” He’s resigning to give younger leadership to the group, whose mission is to encourage a transformation of the once neglected Wabash into a natural center of community activity.

Local businessman Charlie Williams, chosen last week to replace Mutchner, sees rapid achievements in that nine-year stretch. “We’ve covered a lot of ground in a short amount of time,” Williams said. Mutchner and the pioneering members of Riverscape “accomplished some things that should’ve taken years, and only took a few short years,” said Terre Haute Mayor Duke Bennett.

“It’s clear,” the mayor added, “that John had a huge passion to make great things happen along the river.”

He spent a quarter-century as basketball coach at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, building the program at the renowned engineering school into a Midwestern hoops powerhouse among small colleges. His teams won 341 games from 1963 to ’88, drawing a noisy, loyal following in the Quonset-hut style Shook Fieldhouse, where the players took the court to the chest-thumping explosion of a cannon and an unfurling of a Fighting Engineers banner. For another 25 years, Mutchner led a successful property development firm. But nine years ago, when a group that began as Terre Haute Tomorrow under former Purdue Extension agent Max Miller evolved into Wabash River Development and Beautification Inc., Mutchner was asked to serve as its president, and he agreed.

Yet today, even considering his long career resume, the 79-year-old Mutchner calls that “Riverscape” organization “the most dedicated, goal-oriented group I have ever been around,” adding, “and it will go right on.”

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