News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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August 27, 2010

B-SIDES: After a long journey, Max Ehrmann and ‘Desiderata’ have come home to Terre Haute

TERRE HAUTE — The universe – the one surrounding Max Ehrmann’s poem “Desiderata” – is now unfolding as it should.

With Thursday afternoon’s dedication of the statue and plaza honoring the late poet, the center of the “Desiderata” universe shifted from Baltimore to the corner of Seventh and Wabash in Ehrmann’s hometown.

And folks in both cities couldn’t be happier.

With Ehrmann’s descendants, guests and an estimated 600 other Terre Hauteans watching, sculptor Bill Wolfe and arts advocate Mary Kramer unveiled the lifesize, bronze likeness of the man who wrote one of the world’s best-known poems. Kramer, executive director of Art Spaces Inc. and the heart of the Cultural Trail Coalition, described the many contributors and participants who helped the nearly 21⁄2-year effort to fund and create the site, and quoted from Ehrmann’s vast repertoire of works.

 Fellow CTC members and dignitaries quoted his poems, such as “A Prayer” and “Terre Haute.”

The sun beamed powerfully through a blue August sky.

It was such a Terre Haute moment.

Six-hundred and 70 miles to east, the Rev. Mark Stanley and the staff at Old Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church in Baltimore may now breathe a small sigh of relief. For more than four decades, the church has fielded calls and inquiries from lovers of Ehrmann’s roadmap for a happy life. Old Saint Paul’s became a mecca for “Desiderata” fans.

By mistake.

In the late 1950s, a minister there copied “Desiderata” onto the cover of a booklet of his favorite poems, and left them in the pews for parishioners during Lent. It was then passed hand to hand to others. Eventually, it circulated throughout the region without a byline, but with the church letterhead across the top, reading: “Found in Old Saint Paul’s Church, Baltimore, A.D. 1692.” As the poem became a mantra of the 1960s counterculture movement, legions of admirers thought it was written by some unknown 17th-century poet connected to Old Saint Paul’s, which was founded in 1692.

Of course, Ehrmann wrote it in Terre Haute in 1927.

Nonetheless, posters, Christmas cards and recordings of “Desiderata” spread around the planet without giving him credit. Even a legal challenge in the 1970s didn’t end the confusion.

On Thursday morning, the current rector at Old Saint Paul’s said the “Desiderata” calls are still flowing in.

“We get calls all the time,” the Rev. Stanley said Thursday morning by telephone from Baltimore. “I thought it was just going to be generational, that it would just be people from the 1970s, but it hasn’t stopped.” Most of the callers want to see “the original copy from 1692,” Stanley said.

Obviously, there is no original copy from 1692.

Some just want to share stories about how it affected their lives. That includes a Vietnam war veteran who years ago “called and said, ‘That poem helped me through that time,’” Stanley said, retelling a predecessor’s experience. “So you know that it has power.”

Others callers want to know if they can buy a print of the poem. “So people from around the world are looking to us for information about it,” Stanley said.

The church does not sell copies of “Desiderata” Its website, www.osp1692.org, contains information on Ehrmann’s poem to satisfy the curious, but doesn’t include the full text of the poem. Fearing copyright infringement challenges, the church has always steered clear of public presentations of “Desiderata,” yet dutifully continues to respond to the endless stream of requests.

The copyright concerns are no longer an issue, according to Jo Kline Cebuhar, an Iowa attorney who uses “Desiderata” in a soon-to-be-released book, “So Grows the Tree: Creating an Ethical Will.”

During World War II, Ehrmann allowed a friend – Army psychiatrist Dr. Merrill Moore – to hand out more than 1,000 copies of the poem to his soldier-patients, free of charge and without any stamp of the copyright Ehrmann had rightfully secured in 1927. In 1976, a U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that Ehrmann had basically forfeited the copyright by allowing Dr. Moore to freely distribute “Desiderata” without copyright notations.

“It’s absolutely public domain,” Cebuhar said.

The Cultural Trail Coalition – the Terre Haute group behind the nearly three-year effort to create the Ehrmann statue and plaza – worked with the archivist at DePauw University (Ehrmann’s alma mater and holder of his letters and papers) to clear up any questions about usage of “Desiderata.”

Cebuhar and DePauw archives coordinator Wes Wilson both indicated on Thursday they would be willing to share information with the church.

So, Old Saint Paul’s now may be able to, finally, satisfy Desiderata-philes and steer them instead to the poem’s real birthplace – Terre Haute. Ehrmann kept “Desiderata” tucked into his front pocket for months as he crafted it. He often wrote as he strolled through the downtown. Once he finished it, Terre Haute had become the backdrop for a treasured piece of ageless wisdom.

Eighty-three years later, the city’s place in literary history is, at last, unmistakably etched in bronze.

Visitors who sit down beside Max’s statue, seated on a park bench, will notice the sentence written on his bronze notepad: “Here is the world in miniature.” That’s a big destiny for Terre Haute. With Thursday’s overflow crowd, his hometown seems ready to embrace that role.

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

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