News From Terre Haute, Indiana

September 30, 2012

Keeping ‘Debsian’ Ideals Alive: The Eugene V. Debs Foundation celebrates 50th anniversary

Mark Bennett
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — The concept of starting a foundation honoring American history’s most famous radical didn’t exactly warm every heart in his Midwestern hometown.

After all, 1962 “was almost the height of the Cold War,” said Charles King, a retired Indiana State University sociology professor.

The Eugene V. Debs Foundation formed anyway, behind “an alliance of Indiana State University faculty members, organized labor representatives, and a mixed group of men and women who shared ‘Debsian’ ideals,” according to a historical account by Robert Constantine, one of the co-founders, reprinted in the organization’s 2012 newsletter.

A half-century later, the home Debs and his wife, Kate, occupied on North Eighth Street in Terre Haute remains a National Historic Landmark and museum, detailing the life of a native son who became a pioneer of labor unionism, social justice crusader and five-time candidate for president atop the Socialist Party ticket. The Debs Foundation, created in 1962, has grown to 830 members “from everywhere,” said King, the organization’s secretary for the past 27 years.

This weekend, the foundation celebrated its 50th anniversary with the annual presentation of the Debs Award to civil rights and labor leader Clayola Brown. She joins a notable list of recipients, including Arthur Schlesinger, Jesse Jackson, Kurt Vonnegut, Coretta Scott King, Studs Terkel, Ed Asner, Ralph Nader, Rich Trumka, Julian Bond and Danny Glover, among many others.

The award, initiated in 1965, aims to sustain Debs’ spirit of progressivism, humanitarianism and social criticism, according to the foundation.

The formation of the foundation and the preservation of the Debs home share similar goals.

The first steps in ’62 by that “small band of visionaries,” as King described them in the newsletter, were not simple. Debs’ legacy as a political firebrand who went to prison for speaking out against the premise for World War I and criticized the captains of industry rankled many in Terre Haute. Even 36 years after his death, Debs “had some people that weren’t fond of him,” said Curtis Culver, one of those charter members of the foundation.

Culver worked as a postal clerk in Terre Haute, and served as president of the postal clerks union on the local and state levels. It was during his younger years as a brakeman and conductor on the Chicago-Milwaukee Railroad that Culver learned of Debs. In 1893, Debs gained national prominence by forming one of the nation’s first industrial labor organizations, the American Railway Union. As a young man, Debs — who was born in Terre Haute in 1855 — also worked in rail yards, painting and cleaning cars, and later took a job as a railroad fireman.

“He was a strong supporter of people who were subject to problems,” said Culver, now 92 and still living in Terre Haute.

So, in 1962, a group of 58 people from Terre Haute and beyond contributed $100 each toward the $9,500 needed to purchase Debs’ home from a private owner. At the time, the simple, three-story home had transitioned from an ISU fraternity house to an apartment building. Cliff Lambert, now executive director of the Terre Haute Department of Redevelopment, lived in one of those apartments during a summer as an ISU student.

“It was a wonderful experience,” Lambert recalled last week. He learned of the apartment’s availability from a friend, who was a student of ISU professor Bernard Brommell, another of the foundation’s charter members. While living there, Lambert got a job through the local labor hall, helping to construct Interstate 70 through the city’s southside.

He set poles in concrete along the new thoroughfare. “I learned firsthand while working on that I-70 project why we so desperately need unions,” Lambert said, “and why Debs was so important.”

A handful of foundation organizers first approached the owner of the apartment house, before seeking those $100 contributions, to gauge his interest in selling the Debs home. The foundation newsletter labels that a defining moment in its history, “when [ISU professors Woodrow] Creason, [Earl] Stephanson, [and] Constantine, and Tilford Dudley [an AFL-CIO representative] walked across campus to the Debs home and, along with [local newspaperman Ned] Bush and Culver from local labor, talked to the owner …”

Along with the purchase of the house, the group eventually raised $100,000 to support the foundation, King explained. By 1965, the museum was open and formally recognized as a state landmark, and the first Debs Award was presented to labor icon John L. Lewis.

Those presentations give the foundation and Debs’ causes a high-visibility moment each year. “We are trying to encourage people who are sometimes experiencing sacrifice to do what they are in their careers,” King said. “For some of these people, having received the Debs Award has helped them in their careers, and encouraged them to keep on keeping on.”

Typically, it is received graciously.

“My experience with [the winners] since I’ve been on board is, they’ve all been appreciative,” King said.

Some unusual moments pop up, though. King recalls driving 1992 recipient Ralph Nader, the famed consumer and environmental activist, to the airport. “He appreciated the Debs Award, but he was all business,” he said of Nader. During the drive, Nader rolled all the windows down, “and it really wasn’t all that warm,” King remembered, with a laugh.

Just “two or three” people have declined the Debs Award, King said, mostly for scheduling conflicts that would prevent a recipient from coming to Terre Haute for the presentation. One, filmmaker Michael Moore, did not respond to the offer. “Clearly, though, he didn’t consider it very important,” King said.

One of the primary concerns for the future is engaging a new generation of members. King, now 82, joined the foundation in the mid-1980s. Though the 830 current members stretch from New York to Wisconsin to California, their ranks don’t include enough young Debs advocates, in King’s view. “Not as many as I would like,” he said. “Too many of our members are over 50.”

He and Culver, though, think the foundation’s mission — to keep alive the causes Debs championed — and the museum have a strong, relevant future.

If Debs, born in Terre Haute in 1855, were alive today, Culver said, “he’d be speaking for people making a living, trying to elevate them.”

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