TERRE HAUTE —
One of my favorite philosophers, Bugs Bunny, understood his predicament.
As a perpetually pursued game animal, Bugs often asked his cartoon audience, “Did you ever have the feeling you was being watched?”
Scrutiny can be powerful. It keeps rabbits, like Bugs, alert. In humans, it can improve behavior.
And, it has gradually transformed a ritual of rebellious revelry into a more tolerable slice of local tradition. That transformation of “The Walk” is definitely a work in progress, and probably will remain so, given its premise.
The origins of The Walk are hard to pinpoint, beyond urban legend. Sometime in the previous century, though, it became a fixture during the Indiana State University Homecoming festivities.
Starting around 7 o’clock on Homecoming mornings, ISU students and some alums walk nearly 25 blocks along Wabash Avenue, making stops at jam-packed taverns and beer-serving restaurants until — in theory — they reach the site of the ISU Homecoming football game, Memorial Stadium, later that afternoon.
In between, stuff happens. The socializing in a festive, college-town atmosphere occasionally gets tainted by unruly, obnoxious, drunken behavior.
Because the early stages of The Walk coincide with the one moment annually when the campus, downtown and greater Terre Haute communities converge — the ISU Homecoming parade — the general public encounters The Walkers first-hand.
The Walk is not, nor has it ever been, an official part of the ISU Homecoming. Students started it, and they perpetuate it. Despite that genuine disclaimer, complaints of misbehavior have historically been directed at the university.
Seven years ago, beset by “complaints all up and down Wabash from people who were tired of students urinating and throwing up in their buildings,” according to then-ISU president Lloyd Benjamin, the university rerouted the Homecoming parade off Wabash Avenue. By sending the marching bands, floats and candy-tossing politicians a block north on Cherry Street, Walkers would avoid parade-watchers. The detour of the parade, which dates back to the 1920s, off its traditional path — Wabash Avenue, the National Road — proved wildly unpopular.
Yet, it provided a turning point.
Campus, downtown and city officials started talking. The following spring, ISU announced its Blue and White Parade would return to Wabash. At that announcement, Todd Nation, a city councilman and downtown business owner, suggested measures to alleviate the misbehavior by Walkers, such as placing portable toilets along their route, providing free bus service for participants who want to stop walking early and go on to the stadium or go back to campus, and adding police between the bars.
That was only half of the equation. Kevin Burke, then Terre Haute’s mayor, delivered the bottom-line requirement for students.
“The Walk simply has to behave,” Burke said on that day in 2006.
Turn the clock forward to Monday.
ISU still plays no official part in organization of The Walk, but the university no longer ignores or avoids a ritual that is not going to go away. Through those recommendations uttered six years ago, The Walk has taken steps toward becoming an accepted tradition — a highly monitored, accepted tradition. For now, “tolerated” probably fits better than “accepted.”
“The fact that The Walk gets a lot of scrutiny has helped,” Bill Mercier, ISU Police chief, said Tuesday.
“It certainly is a big event,” Mercier added. “It can’t be ignored. And a majority of the students understand they’re being watched by the community. Of course, there’s always going to be those few people who are going to abuse it.”
Those folks will likely encounter one element of the heightened scrutiny — a significant police presence. Along with security inside the businesses, officers from the Vigo County Sheriff, Terre Haute Police, Indiana State Police, Indiana State Excise Police and ISU departments work the route. Some wear plain clothes. Some wear uniforms. Some patrol on bicycles.
The number of arrests for underage drinking and public intoxication have been few in recent years, according to excise police.
“Over a number of years, a consistent police presence has had an impact on The Walk and tailgating [outside Memorial Stadium],” said Travis Thickstun, public information officer for the state excise police.
He acknowledged other initiatives by ISU and the community.
The city will, once again, provide portable toilets in Gilbert Park, Mayor Duke Bennett said Wednesday. Businesses provide other portable johns elsewhere.
Also, two programs aimed at keeping students safe during The Walk will continue this Oct. 6 when ISU celebrates its Homecoming 2012. The university’s Designated Walker program hopes to use more than 100 students who will agree to stay sober that day and — through two days of training — monitor friends who are imbibing. Trainees can use “bystander intervention” skills if someone causes damage or a disturbance, carries booze outside designated areas, has trouble walking or loses consciousness, said Aimee Janssen-Robinson.
With some incidents, Designated Walkers may simply alert police, she added.
Designated Walkers is in its fourth consecutive year. Another program, SoberRide, is in its third straight year. Two buses, provided by Lafayette Limo, will give rides to Walkers along a multi-stop, continuous route from the stadium to the campus. The number of students using SoberRide has grown from 400 in its first year, 2010, to 600 last year, Janssen-Robinson said.
“You’re not going to end [The Walk],” she said, “so what we need to do is make the environment safer.”
Walkers who do misbehave cause problems, no doubt. The Downtown Farmers Market, which offers fruits, veggies and other home-grown goods every Saturday from June through October at the Clabber Girl lot at Ninth and Cherry streets, will not convene on Oct. 6, Angi Hansel, market master, said Tuesday. In past years, Walkers take a shortcut from Wabash to a campus bar through the market area, disrupting the process. Vendors unanimously decided to “take the weekend off” this Homecoming, Hansel said. The market will resume the following Saturday, Oct. 13.
Let’s hope the number of disruptive Walkers drops even lower this year, prompting farmers market organizers to try again on Homecoming 2013. After all, the Downtown Farmers Market is a tradition, too.
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.