Introduction to The Common Good

There are scores of old one-room schoolhouses and small high-school buildings—remnants of a past way of life—that still dot Indiana’s countryside. Some have restored exteriors, with interiors transformed into residences, community buildings, or businesses. I’m pleased they’ve been resurrected and found new lives, and I’ve photographed a number of them. But my camera is drawn more to those structures that are terminally forlorn—those with peeling paint, crumbling brick, and rotting wood.

As I walk around these sorry one-time local landmarks, it’s the shards of slate shingles lying haphazardly on the ground, the outhouse leaning out-of-plumb by a back fence, the rusted cast-iron water pump minus its handle, or the eroded slab of limestone proudly proclaiming a century-old construction date and the name of a long-dead township trustee, that catch my eye. An end may be knocked out to allow farm equipment, or bales of hay, to be stored inside. Others retain their four walls, but are unsecured—wide-open and empty—with door-less hinges and glass-less window frames. Still others are locked and boarded-up tight, silently waiting, for what?

Whenever I approach one of these derelict sites, once so filled with life, I always have questions. Gazing on a set of worn limestone steps rising up to a pair of battered wooden entry doors, I wonder who attended school here? Could I ask neighbors and locate a former student? Or, have they all passed away or moved on, leaving only a silent structure behind? How about the teachers?

Actually, I knew two such teachers—Joe and Lucille Mendenhall. Though we weren’t related by blood, they were always my Grandpa and Grandma Mendy. Both taught in one-room schools in rural Cass County before moving to the now-vanished Newton County community of Conrad, where he taught school and she stayed home to raise a family. Not long afterward, Grandpa accepted a teaching job in the small town of Talbot. It was a step up for him—to a schoolhouse with two teachers.

In 1927, Grandpa moved his family to Fowler, where he became a rural-route mailman. The first automobile he drove on his rounds through the surrounding farm country was a Model-T Ford, and he kept this steady civil-service job right up until his retirement in the 1960s. When I was a kid, it was a real treat to wake before dawn and head off with him on his deliveries. For some reason, it seemed as if every other person we encountered uttered a variation of, “Well, Joe, it looks like you brought the boss with you today,” each thinking it an original comment. No matter how many times I heard it, I ate it up.

Schools and the postal service—just two of the many essential components of modern society. Such cooperative ventures probably have roots dating back to when our early human ancestors first coalesced into groups and clans. Those forebears discovered that, by working together for the common good, they could all benefit. In time, simple rules of conduct evolved into edicts and mandates, then, eventually, into civil government—with all its associated functions, including policing, and the military. At the same time, it was important to keep good relations with God (or the gods). This led to the formation of houses of worship, a clergy, and codified practices and beliefs. As society continued to progress, and education became important, religious and secular schools were established. Eventually, most of these institutions were supported by taxes, tithes, and tuition.

Of course, not everyone takes advantage—or requires—all that society makes available. For example, Grandpa Mendy rarely went to church. As a young man, he devoted his Sundays to playing semi-pro baseball, then, in his later years, he’d watch games avidly on TV. While, for him, a double-header was a heavenly experience, I remember Grandma Mendy regularly attending services at Fowler’s First Methodist Church. It meant a great deal to her—seeing friends, singing hymns, and hearing the minister’s sermons.

Me? I was raised a Roman Catholic, and was enrolled in parochial schools from first grade through my senior year. So, for me, education and religion seamlessly blended into one another. Overall, I was indoctrinated with 12 years of religion classes and, during my grade-school years, Mass was an integral part of every school day. Yet, at home—other than saying Grace before each evening meal (but, curiously, not before breakfast or lunch), and surviving meatless Fridays with fish and macaroni—religion just wasn’t a dominant presence in daily life. It was, instead, a subtle backdrop—just always there.

It would be very difficult for any of us to imagine who we would be today—as individuals or as a society—if we had no public or private schools; no churches, mosques, or synagogues; no libraries, jails, hospitals, court houses, postal service, or military. While a healthy and motivated individual could certainly educate him- or herself, form a personal moral code, and be a good citizen without their community’s help, most of us do not possess the capacity, desire, drive, or opportunity to do so alone. And, of course, mail delivery, civil defense, and many other services, simply can’t be done by oneself.

The truth is, the various institutions established for the common good have influenced and shaped us all to a considerable degree. Yet, when the structures that housed them are deemed obsolete, they’re often cast aside, ignored, and forgotten. That is, until we drive past one of the old buildings we have a deep personal connection to, and we’re unexpectedly flooded with memories.

Seeing the building where I attended Kindergarten—even though more than 50 years had elapsed—brought me back to my first day of formal education. I was a 5-year-old, and Dad walked me the three-and-a-half blocks from our small bungalow to the imposing, yellow-brick structure on Second Street. He made sure I learned the way because, after that day, I’d walk the route alone.

My Kindergarten was located in the basement of the Fowler High School where both my parents had graduated. Walking inside, then down the steps, we found a classroom full of adults and children. Dad recognized most of the fathers and mothers, but I only knew a few of the kids. After we introduced ourselves to my new teacher, she led us back into the hallway to show me my locker. Instead of being numbered, each locker was identified by a colorful decal depicting a nursery-rhyme character. To my utter horror, I was assigned the Little Bo Peep locker.

This could not be! I was being given a girl’s locker? Protesting, with logic formed from a mere half-decade of life, I explained that I wouldn’t be able to remember Little Bo Peep. However, I was quite certain I could memorize the decal on the adjacent locker—that of Little Boy Blue with his nifty horn. The teacher just smiled. She was confident I’d be able to remember the bonneted little girl with the wayward sheep. In any case, she said, the locker assignments had already been duly recorded—in ink—in her official notebook. Having a girl’s locker was a horrible stigma, but after a few days I managed to get used to it.

The next year, I entered first grade at Fowler’s Sacred Heart School, but I wasn’t there for long. Just before Christmas, my family moved to Lafayette, and I received the rest of my elementary education at St. Mary’s. My grade-school memories are pretty spotty, but I can still picture the chrome-plated, dome-shaped bell with the button on top which sat, regally, on each nun’s desk. It was rung to get our attention, and it always did. And I can almost smell the pungent, red, absorbent powder Mr. Feeney, our janitor, sprinkled on kids’ vomit—something he had to do two or three times a month. I remember half-pint, glass milk bottles; translucent fountain pens with replaceable, plastic ink cartridges; the clanging bell that rang during fire drills, or whenever a prankster thought he could get away with it (and no one ever could); and the pancake-shaped, brass pitch pipe the music teacher optimistically tooted before each song.

I also recall making up sins while standing in line outside the wooden confessional in the Cathedral next door, admiring the priest’s golden chalice and ciborium during Mass, inhaling the distinctive aroma of candles and incense, listening to the tinkling of bells and the droning “Pray for us” of litanies, and being lost in daydreams while bathed in brilliant multi-colored light descending from tall, arched, stained-glass windows.

Many of the churches, schools, and municipal structures that helped mold us have had fates we could not have predicted. For me, St. Mary’s Cathedral, and its school, live on, but the congregation of Grandma Mendy’s Methodist Church has moved elsewhere. The Fowler High School where I attended Kindergarten is now an empty gravel lot, but the courthouses I grew up with in Benton and Tippecanoe County have both been meticulously maintained. My first public library, in Fowler, still resides in its original Carnegie building, but the Wells Library I patronized in Lafayette has become a community center. I also recall the one-lane, iron, Brown Street Bridge spanning the Wabash River, and Columbian Park’s Monkey Island—a hand-crafted, miniature, moated castle erected during the Great Depression—both now demolished.

As you wander through the following pages, you’ll see structures that were built to support, benefit, and enhance society, from all across Indiana. Most have outlived their usefulness but they do still exist—some barely—as partial remains, or in use for other purposes. There are simple, clapboard-sided country churches, as well as colossal ornate ones that could no longer support a dwindling congregation. There are modest one-room brick schoolhouses, and once-stately high schools that were left behind when school districts were consolidated. There are jails, military installations, and buildings that were, in earlier times, vital components of local, county, or state government. And there are the remnants of utilities that once provided our communities with water or electricity. All dedicated to the common good, they have served us well.

Speaking of serving us well, I’d like to sincerely thank Indiana’s former 9th District Congressman, Lee Hamilton, for contributing the Foreword to this book. He has truly devoted his life to the common good, and his moving words are an important and thought-provoking addition to these pages.

John Bower