Wendell Ross wasn’t exactly wordy the other day when asked for a reason why he would spend a good part of the past four years working to rehabilitate and preserve a historic downtown building for a new use as a transitional living residence for families struggling to build new lives.
“Somebody needed to do it,” the 81-year-old Columbus retiree said with a smile and a characteristic shrug of his shoulders.
Wendell has been one of those somebodies for a good portion of his life. He got recognition for being a somebody this month when supporters of Love Chapel, a branch of the Ecumenical Assembly of Bartholomew County Churches, hosted a reception following the dedication of the three-unit apartment building at 423 Lafayette Ave.
He was cited, along with fellow volunteer Daryl McGrath, for building a basement laundry room for clients and restoring much of the upstairs living spaces. It was a role for which he didn’t need any refresher course in do-it-yourself projects.
A good deal of Wendell’s working career was in executive management. He was manager of Columbus Municipal Airport from 1985 to 1999 and prior to that served in a variety of leadership roles at Cummins Engine Co.
But upon his retirement in 1999, he was able to shuck the suit and ties and work with his hands in preserving and building structures for the future. One of those projects I remember in particular was for Gus Potthoff.
Gus is a storied character in Columbus. During World War II he endured several years as a prisoner of war of the Japanese in the jungles of Southeast Asia. Freed at war’s end, he and his family eventually migrated to Columbus, where he became involved as a volunteer with the Atterbury-Bakalar Air Museum. Wendell was one of his fellow volunteers.
Even in his advanced years, Gus remained active, not only as a volunteer but as a chronicler through the medium of painting of World War II history as seen through the eyes of a former prisoner of war. Age, plus the after-effects of the inhumane conditions under which he lived as a prisoner, limited his mobility and threatened to reduce his opportunities to get around town, particularly regular visits to the museum.
Mindful of those conditions, Wendell and Pete Jenkins, another museum volunteer, decided to make getting into and out of Gus’ home on Caldwell Place a lot easier by building a ramp to his front porch three years ago. It was one of those “somebody’s got to do it” projects.
Wendell and Pete supplied the sweat and materials at no charge to Gus and his family. “His wife, Adele, kept sending us checks to cover the expenses, and we’d just send them back to her,” Wendell recalled at the time.
He also didn’t get paid for his volunteer work during the museum’s expansion project a few years ago. Eager to save money, volunteers did a great deal of the construction work themselves instead of hiring contractors. Actually, they had one ready at hand in Wendell.
“Wendell essentially put together the exhibit on a World War II barracks (including those red cigarette butt cans on posts in the middle of the rooms) by himself,” recalled fellow volunteer Gordon Lake. “Some of us would pitch in to help, but he had to guide each of us through the process.”
The museum volunteers still refer to themselves as the “95ers,” a title derived from the effort in 1995 to observe the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II through an enormous community event called Celebration 95.
Wendell was one of the leaders who spearheaded the effort that was capped off by the biggest parade in Columbus history. A centerpiece of that parade was a re-creation of a large arch spanning Washington Street that was modeled after a similar arch built for the encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic, which Columbus hosted in the late 19th century. Guess who was one of the key carpenters in putting that engineering marvel in place?
The irony to Wendell’s story as a builder and preserver of the past is that during his tenure as manager of the airport, he was responsible for the razing of much of the built environment from World War II on the former Air Force base.
“I sort of gave myself the nickname ‘King of Demolition’ because we’d taken down about 60 buildings in the 13 years I had been at the airport,” he said in a 1998 interview. “Most people said it looked much better.”
That’s probably because the old buildings were constructed of wood and thrown together in a space of a few months at the outset of the war. By the time Wendell and the city’s aviation commission undertook the project, the buildings were riddled with termites and collapsing onto themselves.
There was one exception to the razing of the air base’s structural history. The commission asked Wendell to spare one structure that could be preserved to retain the community’s connection to the past. He chose the base chapel, which was barely in better shape than most of the termite-infested structures.
In an effort to save money, Wendell and his cohorts from the Celebration 95 project volunteered to take on the restoration themselves. The result was a beautifully preserved building that was given a new name, the Jeanne Lewellen Norbeck Chapel, in honor of the only woman from Columbus to have been killed while in service during World War II.
Wendell’s activities are pretty limited these days because of an ongoing battle with cancer. He still shrugs off attempts to recognize him for what he has done, preferring instead to give credit to others. Indeed, there were many others who worked with him in making life better for a lot of people.
But when I think of the “somebodies who had to do it,” I will always think of Wendell.
Harry McCawley is the former associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached at email@example.com.