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Terre Haute: It Is What It Is…or Isn’t

Opinion by Christian Shuck
Photos by Marty Jones

When Donovan and I first sat down to discuss how I could start contributing to National Road Magazine my mind went in about a thousand directions. Fortunately, his experience took the lead and he offered insight to what his expectations were for both the magazine and its writers. “I want to get to the character of the Highway 40 corridor,” he said. (Or something to that effect.) Anyway the beer helped me interpret what he meant and I understood what he was looking for. What he wants to highlight are the reasons, ultimately, we choose to live, work and raise our families in West Central Indiana.

In May of 1999 there was only one thing on my mind: getting as far away from Greencastle as possible. To an eighteen year old, it can be a pretty boring place to live. I remember how claustrophobic I felt, how anxious I was to escape. I desperately needed to break away from what seemed like a terribly mundane existence. If it weren’t for people like Bob Berry and Vickie Parker, I may never have. The point is, I was going to leave and I never wanted to come back.

Fast forward ten years through a nasty divorce, a national economic crisis and Greencastle was, very literally, all that I had. A few helpings of humble pie and I resigned myself to accept that this was going to be my place. But something unexpected happened, as is typical in this type of story. I met a girl who refused to see the negative in anything. And though there are moments I still wonder if she’s just plain crazy, her uncanny ability to look at the silver lining pulled me out of the trench I so happily chose to lay in.

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By 2013 the words “I’m moving to Terre Haute” came out of my mouth. Now, I never thought I’d return to Greencastle, and if anything could have been further from my mind, becoming a “Hautian” was it. Most of the memories I had of the Haute were the smell and the mall. In the pre-Circle Center days it was the closest place from Greencastle to go Christmas shopping. Also, I might add, in that same time period Indy was worse than Terre Haute. It wasn’t always Peyton Manning’s home. So in conversation with my best friend I wasn’t the least bit surprised at the spit-take I heard over the phone. “Why can’t you move to Bloomington?” he asked.

I have many friends who rant and rave about Bloomington. Particularly people from Greencastle who wish they lived there. I like Bloomington enough. The shops are cool and it’s full of college girls wearing black leggings and tall brown Uggs. It’s great to visit but like any other municipality it isn’t without faults. That’s the thing about visiting a place rather than living in it, you’re able to get by with a superficial opinion. A person from Chicago would more than likely look down on a town like Greencastle. But that’s only because they’re used to skyscrapers and the Magnificent Mile. My frustration with my hometown when I was younger came from my immersion, compared to my perspective having lived away for several years. The same goes for good ‘ole TH.

Next February we’ll have lived here four years. Since moving here, I’ve seen some amazing things, things that give me hope and encouragement. In a town largely devoid of corporate dollars to fund events and improvements, it’s up to the people that live here to make it what it is…or isn’t. It’s a community of small businesses that rely on the people to shop in their stores. Big enough to support five higher education institutions, but small enough to run into friendly faces on a Saturday night. A town that, over the last ten years, has continued to grow “Dancing with the Terre Haute Stars,” one of the largest fundraisers within a sixty mile radius. They raised over $219,000 in 2016, pushing them over $1 million in that decade of events to support youth service programs. I might add, that event was organized by Greencastle native Brandon Halleck. Add that to the many other philanthropic groups and events that exist here and that number will triple. It’s an incredible amount of giving for a city that, from the outside, looks like it doesn’t have much.

Photo by Marty Jones.
Photo by Marty Jones.

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Philanthropy not you’re thing? That’s okay, because the opportunities available to growing families are abundant. The Vigo County Library has programs all the time. It partners heavily with the Altrusa Club of Terre Haute to support literacy programs in and out of the school system. The parks are amazing. I’d even go so far as to say grossly underrated. Hiking, biking, skating and dog walking are all readily available. The local swimming club, the Terre Haute Torpedoes have a huge following. And if you’re missing that old-timey baseball feel, the Terre Haute Rex are happy to have you watch a game over the summer.

No, they’re not named for the Tyrannosaurus Rex. Rex coffee is brewed exclusively here in Terre Haute by Clabber Girl. Yes, that Clabber Girl, the same baking powder you find in your kitchen cabinet. They still make it here. You can visit the museum and eat at the restaurant inside their headquarters. The company lets organizations use their parking lot in front of the Hulman Center for events year round. The Farmer’s Market in the summer, the infamous Altrusa Chili Cookoff (a thirty year tradition), Octoberfest in the fall, and now that we have the Terre Haute Brewery there will probably be some sort of beer festival sooner rather than later.

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Our communities are what we make them. If all we do is wish to live somewhere else, if all we want to do is look at the surface, we’ll miss the opportunity to make our hometowns better.

The Hulman Center is where March went mad in 1979. Larry Bird led the Sycamores to the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship in that arena. Over on ISU’s campus a world record was set on the track. Bruce Baumgartner, Kurt Thomas and Greggmar Swift all went to the Olympics, but they’re not the only ISU students to do so. Four Olympic Gold Medalists graduated from Garfield High School just a little further up the road.

They likely ate at restaurants like the Saratoga. I’ve been told they used to run illegal gambling upstairs there. But that was years ago. Mobsters from Chicago used to come down to the Rod and Gun Club north of town to have secret meetings in the back rooms where you can still eat dinner. Entrepreneurs like Jeff and Kelly Ford have started their own eateries that continue to raise the bar for dining options in the city.  But if high class isn’t what you’re looking for Sonka Irish Pub is happy to let you try a flight of beer from their ever rotating local beer taps. They usually have live music.

Oh yeah, the music. Live bands are playing here all of the time. It’s never been my thing, but I know lots of people who take advantage of it as often as they can. There are plenty of opportunities to make your own music with karaoke nights, too. I could go on. Really, I could. But I think you can see where I’m going with this. It’s a perspective that only age and experience can provide.

I never wanted to move back to Indiana but at this point I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. Our communities are what we make them. If all we do is wish to live somewhere else, if all we want to do is look at the surface, we’ll miss the opportunity to make our hometowns better. Terre Haute certainly has those opportunities. I for one am proud to live here. I’m proud of the effort I see people put forward to make their neighborhoods better. Of all the places in the world, of all the places I’ve lived, the Haute has shown me more goodness in humanity than ever. If you don’t believe me, you’re welcome to come and visit. I can show you where all the cool kids hang.

About Christian Shuck

Christian Shuck is a Greencastle native and Hope College alumnus who works in higher education as a major gift officer. Besides his contributions here, he also writes for his own blog cmshuckstories.com.  He currently lives in Terre Haute.

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4 comments

  1. Well said, couldn’t agree more

  2. I enjoyed your article. I am 67, a lot older than you, but your writing connected with me on many levels. I grew up in Casey, Illinois, about halfway between Terre Haute and Effingham on I-70/US-40. I am an ISU grad and lived in Terre Haute from 1967 until 1980. I worked in broadcast journalism until 1995 in radio and television, and WBOW Radio in Terre Haute was where I learned how to be at least somewhat professional. You mentioned the Saratoga and the Sonka, both old hangouts of mine. The Wabash Valley Press Club used to have monthly meetings at the Saratoga. That was when Terre Haute had both morning and afternoon newspapers along with the weekly Spectator edited by Fred Nation who I still keep up with as friends on facebook. And Terre Haute had three radio stations with local news departments, WBOW 1230AM, WAAC 1300AM and WTHI 1480AM. And there were the television stations WTHI Channel 10 CBS, WTWO Channel 2 NBC and later the ABC UHF affiliate that did not have a news department when I was there. I am so happy that the National Road magazine is here to bring back memories of the highway that brought so many of us together.

  3. Thanks to both of you!

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