News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Opinion Columns

May 7, 2013

RONN MOTT: ‘Heritage gone’

The last high school I attended was being torn down just a few days ago. I didn't learn about it until I saw classmate Dick Mills on television and a display he had put together about State football championships in the middle 1930's. I began elementary school with Dick Mills. That was Matthew South Elementary School on South Sixth Street in Clinton, Indiana. After seeing Dick on TV, it dawned on me that all schools I had attended in Clinton have been torn down.  

Newport High School, which was caught up in the consolidation move of the 1960's, was not torn down but became the Vermillion County Library and a place for meetings and such. I suppose  true heritage is not really a building, but the friendships, the send-offs to college or to careers the schools gave us, and the enduring friendships are really what these buildings of old schools represent. My time spent at Newport High School was special because my father had graduated from there 30 years ahead of me. He graduated from the old high school, which had become the elementary school when the new high school opened around 1926. My grandfather was hired to take a team of horses and a grader to grade the sloping lawn which was then the new high school. My dad told the story about Montezuma's basketball team (the Aztecs) in Newport to play the Newport Tigers. Both teams were warming up at opposite ends of the court. A tall, lanky boy was throwing them in from about the mid-court circle (would have been three-pointers today). The Newport coach had said something to him about shooting pretty good and the young man said, “Well, Coach, when you're inside and not outside you don't have to judge for the wind.” I have no way of knowing of whether that's a true story or just small-town legend, but that was about the time the legend of Indiana prowess in basketball was beginning to take shape.

Newport is the county seat and work was beginning again at the Newport plant as we were beginning to re-tool for what would lie ahead for our military. Even with the influx of people coming to work at the plant, Newport was still a very small town. In the summertime we would run and throw our clothes off and swim in the bend of the Little Vermilion River. We would say, “Come 'on, we're going to swim in the crick!” And we did. Between the Newport Tavern and the Post Office on the east side of the square, they had put up two immensely sturdy basketball goals. One at the east end of the lot and one at the west end of the lot. The surface had been scraped clean of any growing grass or anything else and if it didn't snow or rain all day it was a perfect surface to bounce the basketball. A place in the daylight hours that almost always had activity going on. I often wondered at the time with all that playing of the game why we Tigers didn't win more often. There was obviously more to the game than just putting the ball in the hoop.  

Clinton High School changed my life because it was from there, and the training of Margaret McWethy, that I found myself in front of a microphone at the tender age of 16. It was Mrs. McWethy's training and not my extraordinary talent that would find me on the payroll of WPRS at nearby Paris, Ill.  Tami Lahti was the only teacher I had in high school who had a Ph.D. She was the first person in my life who thought I could be a writer. She would certainly approve of what we're doing today, but isn't around to read it.  

My class meets for lunch three times per year … March, June and September. That's one way we keep the spirit of high school alive.

I suppose getting older and seeing the faces at our lunches and reunions, each meeting and each person become more precious than the time before. So the buildings will come down and be replaced by other structures or other things, but we hope to keep the heritage alive by the gathering of old friends and the memories that all of us conjure up.

Ronn Mott, a longtime radio personality in Terre Haute, writes commentaries for the Tribune-Star. His pieces are published online Tuesday and Thursday on Tribstar.com, and in the print and online editions on Saturday.

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