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Glenn Thompson stood before a preliminary sketch of Memorial Gym during a 1952 fundraising meeting. Community leadership has been a longstanding tradition in Columbus. The Memorial Gym fundraising drive is one example. The Republic file photo

By Harry McCawley

Since moving to Columbus in 1966 I have heard two refrains that have stubbornly refused to exit the community dialogue:

  • This is the last generation of community leaders. No one is waiting in the pipelines.
  • Cummins will be moving its headquarters somewhere else.

I’m happy to report that neither refrain has come to fruition, although there have been some pretty close calls.

For instance, Cummins Engine Co. had closed on an agreement in the early 1960s to merge with White Motor Co. and eventually move the headquarters of the combined companies to Chicago. All that was needed for the deal to go through was the signature of Attorney General Robert Kennedy.

Unfortunately for the merger backers, Kennedy, who had doubts about the proposed union, made himself unavailable past the deadline and the deal fell through. It kept the Cummins headquarters in Columbus and more than a few company officials unhappy with President John F. Kennedy’s brother.

Forty years later the town’s unofficial prognosticators brought out the doom and gloom predictors who were sure that the city would dry up with news of the death of community philanthropist J. Irwin Miller.

According to their scenario, the city would lose not only the significant resources his family had provided for so long but also would stray from the moral compass he had passed onto other community leaders, especially those who would chart the future course of Cummins Inc.

Far from it. The family left the city a legacy that served to not only protect many of its architectural and cultural treasures but set an example for other leaders to do the same. Equally important, the company leaders he had helped nurture, mostly through example, maintained that spirit into the 21st century, taking tough moral stances against issues deemed prejudicial to certain classes of people.

Miller’s role as a committed community leader spans several generations, several of which community naysayers predicted would be the last of its kind. It also reflected the commonly held belief that the leaders of Cummins would eventually become too big for small town Columbus, especially since so many of them had come from somewhere else.

There’s a certain irony in these beliefs.

One of the earliest manifestations of the Columbus style of leadership developed in the post-World War II era when a group of young Columbus residents returned from service to help rebuild the city from the inside out. They tackled infrastructure issues, such as education, water sources, sewage and roads. One of the most important and controversial issues was the annexation of East Columbus.

This class of leaders was a mixture of the public and private sectors, including Mayor Bob Stevenson, Miller, Hamilton Manufacturing patriarch B. F. Hamilton and Arvin Industries Chairman Glenn Thompson. If there was a single major achievement of this group it was the fundraising effort for Memorial Gym. In the space of a few days it raised more than a million dollars to erect one of the largest athletic facilities in the state.

The leaders of this period didn’t limit themselves to brick and mortar projects. Spurred on by civil rights advocates like the Rev. William Laws of First Presbyterian Church and Bartholomew County Hospital activist Mickey King, the group broke Columbus away from the stereotyped image of small town Indiana and brought about sweeping changes in the era of civil rights.

When this generation of leaders began to fade from the scene, another was waiting in the wings to deal with an ever-changing set of conditions. As Cummins experienced growth in the global marketplace, especially in China, rumors circulated that the company was seeking a new headquarters site. Expansions in any of the company’s other sites automatically fostered rumors that a Columbus pullout was imminent.

It didn’t show in the company’s community involvement. Mindful that employees of the future would need more complex skill sets, Cummins leaders, such as Chairman Henry Schacht, urged leaders like Mayor Bob Stewart to better prepare local students for a more competitive marketplace.

That was about the time the mayor proposed his Partnership for Progress project. The group was a true meld of business and public service headed by two chairmen of the town’s leading companies — Cummins’ Schacht and Arvin Industries’ Jim Baker. It included representation from just about every sector of the community and tackled complex issues ranging from substance abuse to attracting major events to the community.

Easily the most important undertaking of the group was the multimillion dollar Front Door Project that transformed the western entrance into the city (Jonathan Moore Pike) into a beautiful and efficient infrastructure project.

That would have been a good act on which to drop the curtain, but it would take another generation of leaders to bring about a dramatic change to the downtown that in turn put the cap on a long-desired effort to make that area “everyone’s neighborhood.”

It was called Vision 2020 and was led by Will Miller (J. Irwin Miller’s son). He gathered other young leaders who had been waiting in the wings for several years. The keystone to their efforts was the reconstruction of the original Commons and the opening of two parking garages that in turn served as a trigger for Cummins to expand its downtown operations, employing more than 3,000 workers there.

The downtown envisioned for so many years by past community leaders almost overnight became a destination for thousands of new residents.

The latest scare that Cummins would be pulling up headquarters stakes in Columbus arose from the construction of an office building in Indianapolis for its Distribution Business. The rumor already had a measure of reliability in that a number of the company’s top executives live in the Indianapolis area.

It can be argued, however, that recent evidence points to a long-term Columbus-Cummins relationship. One of the most telling clues would be the company’s multimillion dollar commitment to join with the city and state in building an overpass into the city because of a heavy increase in rail traffic. While the action speaks to the company’s community commitment, it is noteworthy that the major reason cited was the safety of its employees and the need to get them to and from work.

The company also is making a multimillion dollar investment in its own corporate headquarters, a step not often taken by companies planning to move out.

A different brand of community leader has emerged from this passing of the torch. Ironically, a few of the city’s top cheerleaders, such as Richard McCoy, who put together the hugely successful Exhibit Columbus, and architects Steve Risting and Tony Costello, live elsewhere – McCoy and Risting in Indianapolis and Costello in Muncie.

Having written all this, I’m not about to predict that everything will remain the same through the future. But based on the past, I’d suggest that Columbus will not run out of community leaders and that Cummins’ home address will be Columbus for a few years to come.

Harry McCawley is the former associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached at harry@therepublic.com.