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.”
Much done, much remains
The momentum will continue, Mutchner said, because Riverscape “is much bigger than any individual or individuals.” He deflects personal credit to his board and its pioneering originators such as Miller, former Vigo County parks superintendent Keith Ruble, as well as numerous “community partners” such as the city of Terre Haute, Indiana State University and the local colleges, county government officials, Vigo County schools, and Valley civic and business leaders. Their Riverscape checklist isn’t complete, but it’s not blank.
Mutchner boils down Riverscape’s big-picture vision for the banks of the Wabash to a “3-legged stool” agenda:
opening to the public the riverside south of Fairbanks Park;
enhancing the Wabashiki wetlands on the west bank; and
reviving the east bank along North First Street.
The latter, thanks to ISU’s plans to place athletic facilities west of campus near the Wabash, will become a reality, Mutchner said confidently. The 2010 opening of the unique, 7,000-acre Wabashiki Fish and Wildlife Area and trail system near West Terre Haute, still developing, covers a second goal.
The other goal, opening up lands south of Fairbanks Park through the “aging industrial corridor,” has unfolded more slowly, Mutchner said. He praised persistence by the mayor and city officials in acquiring access to the grounds for a scenic trail and other future possibilities. Those long-term enhancements will “be a mix of public and commercial,” Mayor Bennett said last week. Through federal grants, such as those via the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and in-kind contributions from local firms, Riverscape has raised $11 million for the project, Mutchner explained. Finding funds is a constant task.
Much remains to be done, he emphasized.
Community support crucial
Aside from the logistical steps, Mutchner sees a greater Riverscape accomplishment.
“I think an even bigger success was winning over the hearts and souls of the Terre Haute people on the project,” he said.
That process hasn’t been without controversy. In its early stages, Riverscape endured rumors that its primary mission was to build a riverfront casino or Mutchner-developed condominiums, neither of which was ever true, Mutchner said. The impact on the small community of Dresser on the river’s west side also generated tension among its residents. For a decade, county, state and Federal Emergency Management Agency resources have been used to buy a few properties in flood-prone parts of the half-mile-long village, and its population has dwindled. Mutchner said those purchases happen on a “willing buyer, willing seller” basis, and emphasized that Riverscape doesn’t want to force anyone to leave.
When asked how his style was perceived with Riverscape, Mutchner said, “It depends on who you talk to, just like a coach.” The team approach to the project helps it persevere, an aspect of which he’s proud.
“It’s the fact that we have shown tenacity, basic staying power, and no matter what the obstacles, roll up our sleeves and go after it,” he said. “Projects this big don’t just happen. There has to be the right people doing the right things at the right times, and being willing to stay after it in the good times and bad.”
As Williams steps into the Riverscape president’s role, he recalled a conversation with Mutchner several years ago. “John told me [the project] is the best chance Terre Haute’s had to change people’s opinions of the city, both internally and externally,” Williams recalled.
Mutchner didn’t grow up near the river, and instead was raised “on a farm outside a town [near Richmond] with, as I like to say, seven churches and no liquor license,” Mutchner said, with a chuckle. Yet, “his heart’s in Terre Haute,” Williams said of his predecessor. Listening to Mutchner describe Wabashiki reveals the depth of his connection to the community’s largest natural resource.
“The wetlands are absolutely beautiful,” he said, looking out the window at the rural landscape outside his home office. “The only things you hear are the birds and the wind. You can’t hear a man-made sound or see a man-made thing, except the very tip-top of the [Vigo County] Courthouse. When you get out in the middle of that [wildlife area], you think you’re in Wyoming.
“A lot of people travel a lot of miles to get to that kind of isolation and that close to nature,” he continued, “and we’ve got it a stone’s throw from our courthouse.”
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or email@example.com.