News From Terre Haute, Indiana

July 24, 2010

MARK BENETT: Documentary to shine a light on Terre Haute from all angles

Mark Bennett
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — When an outside spotlight shines on Terre Haute, the results sometimes aren’t sweet.

Sure, this city has enjoyed some glorious publicity — the NCAA tournament run by Larry Bird and the Indiana State Sycamores in 1979, native sons Max Carey and Tommy John starring in baseball’s World Series, the Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts training here for 11 summers, and presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama courting local voters in 2008. But even in those instances, some rough edges were exposed. Sports Illustrated stories about Bird and the then-unbeaten Sycamores included home-life tragedies and ego clashes that irritated the team.

And, of course, there was the Feb. 11, 1961, edition of the Saturday Evening Post.

The Post’s lead story became part of Terre Haute lore. The promo on the magazine’s cover read: “The Sad Case of Terre Haute!” Inside, the headlines above a grim, three-page story called Terre Haute “Indiana’s Delinquent City,” adding that, “In shabby Terre Haute, progress is dead, vice flourishes, and the citizens don’t seem to care.” The piece cemented, for years to come, the town’s old “Sin City” reputation as a gambling and prostitution haven built in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s.

Sometimes, the spotlight leaves mixed results. In 2001, when Oklahoma City bombing terrorist Timothy McVeigh was executed at the Federal Correctional Complex here, locals wondered if the world would now know Terre Haute for its death row. In reality, the community drew praise for its handling of the influx of global media and protesters, and the city is a footnote in McVeigh’s heinous saga.

The real Terre Haute is a little bit of all those things, along with beer brewing, the old Four-Cornered race track, the minor-league baseball team, the General Strike, Steve Martin’s “Nowhere USA” comment, the Blues at the Crossroads festival, the Seventh Street Arts Corridor, poet Max Ehrmann, author Theodore Dreiser and his songwriter brother, Paul Dresser, activist Eugene Debs, Tony Hulman, the Coke bottle, factories, churches and five colleges.

John Winninger and the staff at WTIU will try to sum it all up in a one-hour documentary, “Our Town: Terre Haute.” The show airs at 8 p.m. Monday, Aug. 30, on WTIU, a Public Broadcasting television station based in Bloomington. Terre Haute is the seventh Indiana community featured in WTIU’s “Our Town” series, following Spencer, Bedford, Seymour, Greencastle, Martinsville and Monroe County.

“The whole gist of the thing is to look back at the history — the warm and fuzzy stuff, and the things that are not so warm and fuzzy,” said Winninger, senior producer and director of educational services at WTIU, where he’s worked since 1968. “We try to get the big gray elephants in the room out of the room.”

In the segment on Martinsville, “Our Town” delved into perceptions of that central Indiana city as a Ku Klux Klan stronghold, and largely dispelled those claims, Winninger said.

As WTIU began studying Terre Haute, surprisingly few local folks mentioned the town’s infamous smell, Winninger said. Thus, the odor problem, which has become less diverse because of plant closings, won’t be highlighted. But …

“Of course, Terre Haute has the ‘Sin City’ thing, which we touch on,” Winninger said.

On the flipside, the show also will dwell heavily on the higher education community, which includes Indiana State University, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, St. Mary-of-the-Woods College, Ivy Tech and Harrison College.

Once WTIU’s focus is complete, Winninger thinks Hauteans will like what they’ve seen, just as residents of the other “Our Town” cities have enjoyed their 60 minutes of statewide fame.

“It should be a good reflection on the city,” he said.

The mere ability of Terre Haute to produce “a good reflection” marks a significant step forward from the Saturday Evening Post exposé 49 years ago.

That story — written by the late Peter Wyden, a noted journalist who also served as a Washington correspondent for Newsweek — described a local Chamber of Commerce officer who tried to open residents’ eyes with a series of three commentaries aired on a Terre Haute TV station. According to the story, he asked viewers, “Why do we have to be among the last to get on the band wagon of urban renewal? Why do we have no underpasses at our key railroad crossings? Why did 20,000 of our 36,000 registered voters in the city stay away from the polls last May 5th? Why have we been so long in getting started on an adequate sewer system? Why do we have one of the highest tax rates in the state and so little to show for it? Why no enforcement of our smoke-abatement ordinance? Why do our young people leave this city?”

Obviously, some of those problems remain on our town’s résumé. The difference now is that Terre Haute has an energetic corps of people determined to give residents good reasons to stay. The proof of that momentum can be found in the new downtown hotels, the Arts Corridor, the Blues at the Crossroads festival, the Riverscape project, the new Terre Haute Rex baseball team and the new stadium that houses them, Bob Warn Field at Sycamore Stadium.

Winninger found residents anxious to talk positively about this place. During the “Our Town” episode, Winninger gives them that chance. “I said, ‘Why Terre Haute? Why do you love your city so much?’ And they said, ‘Because it’s home. It’s where we raised our family.’”

Whether or not that sentiment sticks with the outside world, it’s a reputation worth keeping.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or