We need a culture in which the truly good figures of our past are not canceled because they did not talk in the same way as we do about moral and social issues. We also need a culture in which local and state figures are considered just as important as those on the national level.
There are two kinds of post-party regret. There is l’esprit de l’escalier, “the spirit of the staircase,” in which one only thinks of the devastating response or comeback after one has, like Elvis, left the building. Alternatively, for those of us blessed and cursed with a quick tongue, there is the regret felt when one has had the presence of mind but not the self-discipline to refrain from the stinging retort and stepped too hard—to keep with the Presley theme—on someone’s blue suede shoes. A variant of this second regret is that felt upon having been, if not witty, brutally frank enough to get everyone all shook up.
One instance I have meditated on often over the years came at a morning meeting of the Kiwanis club in the spring of 1992. That particular morning the Kiwanians were honoring the top ten students in the graduating class at Bremen High School, of which I was one (not the top, but number four or five). After a brief presentation of the seniors with a list of their achievements and activities, members of the club threw out questions. I only remember one of them: do you see yourself settling in Bremen or the area after college? After a pause in which nobody answered, I responded that I couldn’t see myself settling down in a small town because I couldn’t see what I would do in a town like this.
The reaction was less icy cold than a somewhat embarrassed silence. I considered myself an intellectual, and my answer, mostly predicated on the idea I had of being a professor in a college or a writer at a big-city magazine, seemed a put-down of the place where I’d been raised. No doubt my father, that Job-like figure who was also a Kiwanian, had some embarrassment at yet another example of my articulate tactlessness.
The episode likely wasn’t as dramatic as it plays in my mind. After all, adults get used to the fevered idiocies and arrogance of youth. At least I didn’t crash into any of their mailboxes with the pick-up. Yet the incident sticks out in my mind as a bit of crooked stick-ery from which no providentially-drawn straight lines appeared.
Or maybe not. Perhaps my rudeness at least had the effect of making me think more as the years went by about the town in which I said I wouldn’t live. As the fevers of youth cool, one’s vision of what one had as a child begins to get clearer. Small towns that seemed confining at 18 seem cozy at 46. The provincial mindset of the townies looks far wiser in the ways of the world than the cosmopolitan provincialism of the cities or, especially, the universities.
The sign on U.S. 6 coming in from the east end of town read, “Welcome to Bremen: A Good Town.” As an aleck of the genus “smart,” I thought it was slightly funny as a teen. After years of following Bremen life through the local paper, first the iconic Bremen Enquirer and now the less substantial but geographically more spread-out Heartland News, I think the town was and is exactly what the sign says it is. Today I would gladly live there if I had the opportunity. One of the things that has convinced me of this is a recent publication put out by Historic Bremen.
Otis R. Bowen; Farm Boy to Governor: A Life by retired Bremen Elementary School teacher Sheila Reed is a 26-page illustrated introduction to the most famous name associated with Bremen. “Doc” Bowen (1918-2013), as he is still remembered in my hometown, is one of the dreaded dead white males, even a Republican! Too many towns, cities, and states are busy taking down the pictures, statues, and names not just of Confederate generals but of any figure perceived to have been active in an unWoke age. Yet Historic Bremen has the guts to publish a children’s book introducing this physician who not only set bones, prescribed meds, and cut the cords of new members of the town (one of my Ingerham cousins—I can’t remember which one—was the last of the thousands of babies he delivered), but also had a political career that took him from the office of Marshall County Coroner to two terms as Indiana’s 44th governor to service in the President’s cabinet as the Secretary of Health and Human Services under his old friend and fellow governor Ronald Reagan.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Doc doesn’t appear to have any skeletons in his closet. Married three times, he did not trade in his wives for newer models but had and held till death parted them from him. His children loved him and ended up well—one of them became a local judge. A well-respected doctor, he served all impartially, even if they were only able to pay him, as my own Hoosier doctor great-grandfather was used to, in the legal tender of “chickens, eggs, butter, or vegetables.” His record as a doctor in World War II included taking part in the invasion of Okinawa in 1945 and treating both American and Japanese soldiers. And as a politician, there were no aspects of his career that ended in “-gate.” His own service was characterized by the ideals he outlined in a flyer when running for the Indiana House of Representatives:
My Legislative Creed
I shall study both sides of every question.
I shall solicit and listen to the information and desires of the people of Marshall and Starke Counties.
I shall ask myself the following questions:
a. Is it morally right?
b. Is it good for Starke and Marshall Counties and the State of Indiana?
c. Will it furnish the greatest good to the greatest number?
d. Who will it hurt? How much? What can be done to remedy it?
e. Does it conform to rules of good sound judgement and economic principles?
After this preparation, study, and guidance, I shall vote according to my own reasoning and the dictates of my own conscience.
Oh, that all legislators could profess a list that includes: the priority of morality over the good of constituents; the reality that almost all policies will have some losers even if many winners and that the lawmaker has duties to both; the attention to both prudence and cost-benefit-analysis; and the clarity that a representative’s guiding stars are not polling or donors but reason and conscience.
Most politicians today don’t even know what a conscience is.
Mrs. Reed, the fourth-grade teacher who taught us Indiana history and advised the club dedicated to it—“Little Hoosiers”—treats these old-fashioned ideals so desperately needed in our time in a straightforward and direct way. Her book, filled with illustrations and documents from different parts of Doc’s life and career, is written in a clear, direct, and warm style accessible to grade schoolers and probably also a bit shocking to them. On the accessible side, she includes pictures of him on his high school basketball team (though his adult life was centered in Bremen, he grew up in Fulton, Indiana) and details of his struggles in medical school—a near-failure in zoology nearly derailed his studies at one point and a lack of money at another. On the shocking side, she informs them that the Bowen family did not in the 1920s have television or internet, these having not been invented, or even a radio. They (gasp!) made music around a piano.
Perhaps also shocking is the sense of duty that Doc Bowen had. He continued to serve as a doctor on the weekends when a state legislator and treated colleagues and staff members as a governor. There was never any sense that the public servant was not interested in serving in any way he could. Nor was there any sense that he was “too big” for Bremen after the national spotlight. He returned to Bremen and died there in 2013.
A life of Otis Bowen is obviously not a book for everybody, but I hope a lot of Hoosier kids read it. We need a culture in which the truly good figures of our past are not canceled or looked at with a stink-eye because they did not talk in the same way as we do about moral and social issues. We also need a culture in which local and state figures are considered just as important as those on the national level. We Americans have for too long attempted to make a federal case out of everything while leaving behind the habits of a healthy federalism.
When we have such a culture, perhaps there will be fewer kids who don’t think they could settle in a little town. They might think of it not as a place to leave in order to do important things, but a place in which important things are done and recognized.
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The featured image is a photograph of Dr. Otis R. Bowen, former governor of Indiana, during his time as secretary of Health and Human Services (1987), and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened slightly for clarity.