Going backward rarely works as a leadership strategy.
Political groups often insist they’re primed to “take back America.” While their intent is to reclaim lost turf, the ultimate goal is to go backward — to a different time. Life isn’t “Back to the Future” or any other movie, though. The best policy for worthwhile living is to do things right today that make tomorrow better.
That said, it never hurts to remember people who walked the same path all those years ago.
Tuesday night, Duke Bennett became Terre Haute’s first Republican mayor in 90 years to win re-election. Given his landslide victory of 7,553 votes to 3,443 for Democrat challenger Fred Nation, most voters had few reservations about Bennett. Yet, if there was one prevailing concern, it was that this city could get stuck in a hunker-down-through-the-recession mentality for years. Bennett has vowed that progress — “responsible progress,” as his campaign termed it — remains a priority.
A progressive vision of the future apparently motivated this town’s last two-term Republican mayor.
On Mayor Ora DeLos Davis’ watch, Terre Haute dreamed big. Some ideas Davis inherited. Some he initiated or, at least, kept alive. Some came true. Some should’ve become realities, but died from a lack of political or monetary support. Regardless, some of the city’s greatest ideas emerged during Davis’ run as mayor, from 1922 through 1929. The book “Queen City of the Wabash” by Terre Haute historian Mike McCormick describes those highlights.
The community’s greatest outdoor venue, Deming Park, opened to the public in 1922. Granted, the transaction for the city to buy the scenic 167 acres of ground for $155,000 from businessman Demas Deming began under Davis’ predecessor, Charles R. Hunter.
But the deal was finalized in March 1922 under Davis’ administration, according to the book.
Thank goodness Davis didn’t come into office promising to repeal the park deal. Imagine Terre Haute without Deming Park. Better yet, be thankful for the people who imagined Terre Haute with Deming Park before it existed. Several other parks, including William S. Rea Park, opened during Davis’ tenure.
Davis pushed for the construction of Memorial Stadium, and it debuted in the fall of 1924. The city funded the $425,000 cost of building the 16,000-seat oval bowl through bond sales. (The pricetag would be $5.6 million today, accounting for inflation.) And, though its structure and look got altered by its conversion from a baseball park to a football stadium in the 1960s, its legacy continues through Indiana State University and local high school sports events. Upon visiting Memorial Stadium, Major League Baseball commissioner Kennesaw “Mountain” Landis declared it America’s finest minor league park. Hall of Famers such as Babe Ruth, Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown and Christy Mathewson played there.
Imagine Terre Haute without Memorial Stadium or its rich pro baseball history.
Davis’ belief in other intriguing concepts went unrequited. He endorsed a 40-mile Paul Dresser Drive that would have circumnavigated the city and was designed by famed urban landscape architect George Kessler. The city settled for one mile of that route, running along the Wabash through what became Fairbanks Park. With Davis in the mayor’s seat, the Paul Dresser Memorial Association rounded up $35,000 to build an arch — like the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, France — over U.S. 40 at the highway’s western entrance to the city. Picture that. (Wow.) But, alas, those funds evaporated a few years after, during the Great Depression, and the arch idea ended. Mayor Davis also wanted to extend South Center Street from Swan Street to Wabash Avenue, but opponents killed the plan.
He backed a venture to create a “Steelton” sector of Terre Haute, with a steel mill and related industries at Fruitridge Avenue and Fort Harrison Road, but an investor group unraveled, McCormick’s book explains. Davis aligned with a group of merchants who formed the Banks of the Wabash Association in 1923, cleaning up a rundown stretch between First and Cherry streets and building boat landings on the river.
Corruption — remember, Terre Haute had mayors imprisoned and impeached in the early 20th century — was not part of Davis’ mayoral legacy. In fact, he first won office in 1921 by beating Donn Roberts, a former mayor and convicted felon, by a slim 552-vote margin. (Nearly 25,000 Hauteans voted in that election, by the way, compared with just 11,066 in Tuesday’s balloting.) Also, the vices that earned the town its “Sin City” label, gambling and prostitution, were at least less overt under Davis. (Prohibition was in place at the time, and illegal, underground escapades were legendary.)
Davis’ performance was so popular that even after being out of office for a decade, he was urged by local Democrats (yes, the opposing party) to run again in 1937. The Dems hoped the former mayor could reunite Terre Haute after the tumultuous General Strike of 1935. Amazingly, Davis won the nomination, but he died at age 68 before the general election.
Still, Davis’ most noteworthy moment came in 1924, when he ran for the Republican nomination for Indiana governor. In that era, the Ku Klux Klan held powerful connections with Republican Party hierarchy. Davis openly stated his staunch opposition to the heinous Klan, and wound up losing the Republican primary to Edward Jackson, an ally of the Klan, according to McCormick’s book.
It seems incredible now, but Jackson became governor of Indiana, while Davis continued on as Terre Haute’s mayor. Things have changed, thank heavens, since then. Going back to that time would be foolish. Learning from those who lived through it would be wise. Considering his track record, it’s a safe bet that Mayor Davis would say the same thing.
Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Going backward rarely works as a leadership strategy.
- Mark Bennett B-Sides
MARK BENNETT: People spaces
Demolition machinery chipped away at the buildings on the 500 block of Wabash Avenue. I stood and watched awhile, last week. By July 2015, a new $18.7-million structure will replace those relics.
MARK BENNETT: City sparkles during premiere of ‘The Drunk’
William Tanoos and Paul Fleschner cast their hometown in a starring role in their debut effort as filmmakers.
MARK BENNETT: ‘Notes on a River’ exhibition brings Wabash scenes to gallery
The best views of the Wabash come with wet, muddy feet.
MARK BENNETT: Quest for the perfect Valentine’s Day gesture may not involve gifts
You’ll need a broom, a pickup truck, trash bins, shop hooks and aspirin.
Filming a “Sanford and Son” remake? Preparing for the apocalypse?
MARK BENNETT: Illinois officials content their state has its business advantages, too
Most people count the Wabash River as an economic asset for Terre Haute. Of course, economic development officials in the Land of Lincoln beg to differ.
MARK BENNETT: Indiana should revisit its time-zone classification
Mister Spock would look at the situation in Indiana and, in that dispassionate “Star Trek” voice, utter a firm conclusion.
“That is illogical,” he’d say.
MARK BENNETT: Young at heart
Imagine an alternate ending to the old Life cereal commercial.
MARK BENNETT: The Drunk: Making peace
Terre Haute grew fond of Eugene Debs.
The process took time.
Debs film to debut at Indiana Theatre
Set in Terre Haute, based loosely on the legacy of a Terre Haute icon, the movie “The Drunk” has one appropriate place for its premiere.
MARK BENNETT: Album turns memories into musical Christmas message for Terre Haute’s Dave Frey, band
In a way, Dave Frey walked in the footsteps of Charles Schulz.
Both men worked hard to let Linus Van Pelt explain the “true meaning of Christmas.”
MARK BENNETT: ‘Longest Night Service’ a time to reflect, remember
Holiday images rarely depict hurt or struggle.
Raising the bar
Around coffeeshops, kitchen tables and office watercoolers, Hoosiers have cussed and discussed the federal health care law.
John bypassed by Hall of Fame again
Baseball Hall of Fame electors have bypassed Tommy John again. The Terre Haute-born pitcher, who won 288 games in 26 big-league seasons, didn’t receive enough votes from the Veterans Committee as it cast ballots on Sunday in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., at the Major League Baseball Winter Meetings.
Tim Meadows: SNL cast member knew he was prime time
If you watched the first broadcast of “Saturday Night Live” on Oct. 11, 1975, raise your hand.
That gives you something in common with Tim Meadows.
MARK BENNETT: Walk of Fame inductee would stand tall in any era
Unlike most of us, Amory Kinney didn’t let the wall around his comfort zone grow taller as time passed.
MARK BENNETT: Words, and what they mean, is what we remember
I remember scanning the granite wall at the grave of President John F. Kennedy in Arlington National Cemetery, looking for those words.
MARK BENNETT: Tommy John getting another shot at Baseball Hall of Fame
Go ahead, circle Dec. 9 on your calendar.
Filling our void: Terre Haute artist Bill Wolfe poured his heart and soul into the project of a lifetime
Bill Wolfe thumbed through a series of photographs documenting his sculpture of basketball legend Larry Bird.
MARK BENNETT: Keeping Terre Haute a vibrant city ‘worth doing’
The past, present and future had just converged at the Crossroads of America.
The moment was made possible by the gutsy spirit of 1920s Terre Haute. Without it, the city would look starkly different.
MARK BENNETT: Tommy John’s Field of Dreams
A kid pedals a bicycle, a ball glove looped over the handlebar, headed to a sandlot game.
It didn’t get much better than that for a 10-year-old in summertime.
MARK BENNETT: Indiana’s Donnelly part of ‘The Middle’ that got deal done
Hanging out in the middle isn’t cool.
Its occupants don’t attract a captivated circle of listeners at parties, their comments don’t inspire hell-yeahs on Facebook, and they don’t pretend to always be right.
MARK BENNETT: ISU professor’s book on Churchill to be TV period drama
Somewhere, Winston Churchill is lighting a celebratory cigar in Michael Shelden’s honor.
MARK BENNETT: Restoration improves courthouse top’s standing in skyline
Terre Haute has a skyline.
From some angles, it consists of billboards, restaurant marquees and convenience-store signs. From other spots, the outlines of historic buildings, church steeples, college dorms and old industries jut into the horizon.
MARK BENNETT: Inspiring project connects Blues Festival, B&G Club members with music
Think a decade into the future. You’re relaxing amid a sea of fellow lawn-chair sitters at Seventh and Wabash, watching the 23rd annual Blues at the Crossroads Festival. Suddenly, the guy on stage starts playing your old Fender guitar. He sounds like the next B.B. King. Then, the guitarist dedicates a song to the person who donated that worn Telecaster to the youth music program in which he learned to play it.
MARK BENNETT: Even Marty McFly wouldn’t want to go back to those paydays
Reliving the 1980s may sound tempting.
Ah, simpler times. Then again … hair styles as big as mushroom clouds, “Miami Vice” jackets, the trickle-down theory, New Coke, Yugos.
OK, “Back to the Future”-style nostalgia obviously has its limits.
MARK BENNETT: Hoops film focuses on life of ‘Slick’ Leonard
Many Americans connect basketball with Indiana.
MARK BENNETT: Rose-Hulman bridge design would let people walk, run, ride across Wabash River
Four months, 500 miles and 18 towns.
In the course of compiling the “500 Miles of Wabash” series, which concludes this Sunday, Tribune-Star photographer Jim Avelis and I heard valuable insights from dozens of people who live, work and recreate along Indiana’s state river. One comment seems particularly relevant to Terre Haute, especially as the ongoing 2013 Year of the River celebration stirs ideas. The quotation affirms the potential of a stellar proposal this community ought to consider.
MARK BENNETT: When did athleticism surpass skill in sports?
Baseball has gotten too athletic.
MARK BENNETT: Steve Martin keeps Terre Haute on burner
If insults are a form of flattery, Steve Martin still likes us.
Better yet, he hasn’t forgotten us.
MARK BENNETT: At 71, Paul McCartney still rocking it eight days a week
I’ll admit, I worried about Paul McCartney during the blistering intro to “Helter Skelter.”
- More Mark Bennett B-Sides Headlines
- MARK BENNETT: People spaces