News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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October 31, 2013

MARK BENNETT: Keeping Terre Haute a vibrant city ‘worth doing’

TERRE HAUTE — 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.

The community honored native son and major-league baseball pitching great Tommy John with ceremonies last Thursday at Spencer F. Ball Park and the Indiana Theatre. The park opened in the early ’20s, and John played there as a kid in the 1950s and ’60s (the past). The City Parks crew renovated its softball diamond and on Thursday afternoon it was dedicated as Tommy John Field (the present). The upgrades will let new generations of young players compete there (the future).

Shortly after the dedication, hundreds gathered to toast John at a dinner program in the ornate Indiana, which opened in 1922. The event served as a “coming out party” for the early phase of the theater’s renovations, new owner Rob Lundstrom said. The place looked revived, with fresh lights and paint, and a new terrace floor.

Soon, the expensive step of replacing the worn seats will unfold. Special-effects lighting, digital projection (to accompany the way-cool, classic reel-to-reel projector), sharpened audio capability and marquee improvements will follow.

Tommy John noticed the vibrancy, as did his fellow hometowners.

Why invest to turn a 91-year-old theater into an even more flexible events center?

“It’s a project worth doing,” Lundstrom said, standing on the new terrace floor, where guests sat at tables between the balcony and lower bowl seats. “I’m a big fan of Terre Haute’s history. It’s had its rises and some falls. Times have been prosperous and not so prosperous, but Terre Haute is not a second-tier city, and I think it needs a facility that can be a go-to place, that links both its past and its future.”

Thank goodness, local movers and shakers in the 1920s didn’t consider Terre Haute “second tier.” They saw big things ahead for the town. They built with great-grandchildren in mind. The era wasn’t idyllic, by any stretch. Racial injustices separated and oppressed residents. Vices flourished here during Prohibition. Working conditions physically exhausted men and often blocked out women. In the forward to Tom Roznowski’s book about 1927 Terre Haute, “An American Hometown,” fellow author Scott Sanders wrote, “While granting that there is much in our past we should relinquish without regret, Tom Roznowski helps us to envision those qualities we might recover and those we might cultivate in our efforts to create wholesome, humane and distinctive home places.”

We owe a continuing debt to the people of the 1920s who envisioned Terre Haute as such a place. Imagine what the city would be today if those folks expected just a mediocre quality of life in the decades to come.

There would be no Deming Park (which opened in 1922), no Memorial Stadium (1924), no Rea Park (1925), no Terre Haute Symphony (1926), no Zorah Shrine Auditorium (1927), no Woodrow Wilson Middle School (1927), no scenic eastside campus for Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology (the school moved there in 1922), no Spencer F. Ball Park, no Indiana Theatre. All of those incredible amenities were just grand dreams before the ’20s. Yet, all remain actively used in 2013, far outliving their innovative creators.

Next week, Indiana State University will dedicate a 15-foot-tall, 2,000-pound bronze statue of former Sycamore basketball legend Larry Bird. It took a big-picture idea from a student, Brad Fenton, and six of his friends to start the ball rolling on the project. Their gumption triggered a broader fundraising effort, helped by the ISU Foundation, that eventually attracted an anonymous primary donor and turned the $153,000 idea into a reality, sculpted by local artist Bill Wolfe. Bird left town for a record-setting Boston Celtics career in 1979.

It took 34 years.

The statue will become a destination for thousands for decades to come.

Terre Haute is not a second-tier town, as long as it refuses to be so. The renovations to the Indiana Theatre and Tommy John Field at Spencer F. Ball Park, and the placement of the Larry Bird sculpture at Hulman Center, provide a great gut-check moment for the community and the chance to assess what kind of future awaits this town.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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