By Harry McCawley
Dig deeply enough into the records of almost any architectural or artistic achievement in Columbus over the past half century and the name of Harold Hatter will most likely pop to the surface.
He didn’t design any of the buildings that have made the city famous, nor did he create any of the works of public art that set it apart from so many other communities. He just made many of them happen.
On the surface, Harold Hatter is an unlikely fit for the role he has repeatedly played in the development of Columbus. Upon first meeting, it is easy to stereotype him as a down-to-earth, good old boy from Kentucky. He is that, but behind that veneer is an intellect that has earned the respect of world-class architects, gifted artisans and leaders in the public and private sectors.
Janice Montgomery, who spearheaded the drive to restore two iconic sculptures, “Puddles” and “Frog Pond,” to the campus of Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp., recalls the advice she received from school officials before setting out on the complicated task. “I was told, ‘You have to talk to Hatter.’”
She did, and after several months of research and fundraising, school officials are planning an unveiling this spring of two statues — one a replacement for an earlier piece that was stolen from its place at the edge of a small pond on the school campus and the other its refurbished companion, which had been damaged by vandals.
“Harold Hatter is the reason we will have these sculptures of children returning to the pond,” Janice said. “He understands art and its impact on our community. He is a researcher and finds ways to solve problems. He does this quietly and without fanfare but with great persistence toward success.”
“Hat,” as he’s known to most who have worked with him, is an unlikely mover and shaker. His accent is a giveaway to his upbringing in Kentucky. He speaks in a down-to-earth conversational style, but when people really listen they will hear the expression of a creative mind that is well versed in a variety of disciplines. He developed an appreciation for art and architecture while a student at Eastern Kentucky University. He honed it after graduating in 1957 and taking a job at Cummins Engine Co.
He began his career in the engineering department but soon transferred into facilities, where he came under the tutelage of Tom Harrison, a Bartholomew County native who oversaw various aspects in the construction and development of company properties.
“I was the project manager on new buildings,” Hat recalled in a 2009 interview for the Columbus Indiana Architectural Archives. “Cummins, at that time, was building all kinds of new buildings, and I got to work with the architecture.”
He also got to work with world-class architects who had been chosen for the various Cummins projects as well as community undertakings — names like Harry Weese, Kevin Roche, Alexander Girard and Paul Kennon. Moving in such company would be an intimidating experience for most, but Hat could also shed that disarming “aw shucks” when it came to resolving problems.
More than once he presided over meetings at which major participants were caught in a logjam of conflicting opinions. “I remember sitting down with one group on a project that had stalled,” he recalled in another interview last year. “After listening to them, I just said, ‘We’re not going to leave this room until this business is settled.’ Sure enough, it was settled.”
Eventually Hat became the leader of architectural design for Cummins. Included in his role was the duty of developing a list of outstanding national and international architects who would be asked to compete for the right to design projects, not only for Cummins, but for the community under the auspices of the Cummins Foundation.
His role did not stop with the submission of the list of finalists to the appropriate organization. He often served as an intermediary between the architect and client in the construction process. Steve Forster, director of operations for BCSC, witnessed Hat’s approach during his tenure as a facility engineer at Cummins.
“Hat had the uncanny ability to ask the hard questions that challenged the designers and contractors to do their best work to meet occupant needs,” he recalled. “He cared about people, relationships, teamwork and excellence.”
Hat retired from Cummins in 1999 but continued his role as mediator and facilitator in the community. Sometimes he stepped out of his self-imposed shadows to take lead roles in projects.
One that was especially close to his heart was a tribute to J. Irwin Miller, the former chairman of Cummins and the man behind the city’s architectural program. He was also one of Hat’s golfing buddies at Otter Creek Golf Course. For Hat, the method of homage was pretty simple — a permanent memorial on the course where the two of them golfed together.
Otter Creek was meaningful not because of their shared experiences but for the insightful 1964 speech Miller delivered on the occasion of its dedication, in which he explained the philosophy his company was following in giving the facility to the city and helping to build “not the cheapest, but very best community of its size in the country.”
Hat’s tribute was a bit unusual. It took the form of a much-needed permanent scoreboard between the first and 18th holes. This was not just any scoreboard. Hat wanted to inscribe the text of Miller’s short speech in the stone structure. He also wanted it designed by a world-class architect. To that end he contacted Kevin Roche (who designed the Cummins corporate headquarters complex) and asked him to take on the task. Roche agreed to the unusual request and donated his services. So did a number of other individuals and organizations who financed the rest of the project after getting entreaties from Hat.
Today the scoreboard is a permanent part of the Otter Creek landscape.
Hat was a natural choice for working on the “Puddles” and “Frog Pond” restoration. He has been working with Steve and education officials on numerous projects.
Much of his recent attention has been focused on art projects in the school corporation, such as the statue of “Bird Boy,” which for much of the 20th century was the centerpiece of the Columbus High School campus and is now on display in Central Middle School; the restoration of three of the horse sculptures from Richards Elementary School; and the restoration of the staircase murals at Southside Elementary School.
Throughout his career and life in Columbus, Hat has continued to be the “good old boy from Kentucky.” More important, he’s helped make this a much better community.
Harry McCawley is the former associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached at email@example.com.