Cities do not get to pick their famous sons or daughters. Whether by fate or divine providence, people are born in a place and rise to prominence through a mix of hard work, talent and luck.
Terre Haute produced people of national and, in a handful of cases, international acclaim. Oddly enough, the community has taken decades to embrace those globally renowned Hauteans who made their mark in the late 1800s and early 1900s. A couple are easily likeable, including poet Max Ehrmann, who received a permanent spot downtown in 2010 through a bronze statue and plaza. That tribute reacquainted the town with the man who gave the world “Desiderata.” It also marked the first site of the Cultural Trail, organized by a group of local citizens guided by Wabash Valley Art Spaces.
Other Terre Haute notables have been less readily claimed. The world knows Eugene Debs for fighting against social injustice and for the rights of workers, but his runs for president atop the Socialist Party ticket from 1900 to 1920 still rankle people. Theodore Dreiser is regarded as one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century, but the risque subject matter make his legacy controversial more than a half-century after his death.
Paul Dresser had his imperfections, but deserves lasting recognition in his hometown. He was the most popular songwriter of the 1890s, and wrote “On the Banks of the Wabash (Far Away)” which became the Indiana state song in 1913. He made a fortune in royalties, generously gave it away to friends and family and died penniless in his sister’s home at age 48 in 1906. Dresser had flaws and lapses in character, but like Ehrmann always kept a strong affection for Terre Haute and its people.
The proposal by Art Spaces to continue the Cultural Trail project by placing a sculpture in Dresser’s honor at Fairbanks Park is worthy of community-wide support. That nonprofit organization, which specializes in outdoor works of public art, has discussed the idea with the city of Terre Haute and the Parks and Recreation Department. Dresser’s boyhood home sits in the southeast corner of the park and could serve as the site for a new sculpture. A nationwide call for artists’ ideas and bids is planned for early 2013, which has been designated as “The Year of the River” by a coalition of local arts groups. Ideally, construction on the Dresser sculpture would begin later that year. Art Spaces hopes to begin fundraising for the artwork this year.
That honor would remind Terre Hauteans of a man who entertained millions around the planet, yet forever loved the city where he grew up. It is long overdue.