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JULIE Hughes made a last-minute addition to the exhibit at the Bartholomew County Historical Society honoring local veterans.
It was large and heavy and had come in the mail only last week.
“It was a bronze plaque and must have weighed at least 50 pounds,” recalled the director of the society. “I know the mail carrier wasn’t very happy about delivering it.”
The plaque had come as a surprise. No one in the museum was expecting it, and even after the package in which it came was opened, there was an aura of mystery about it.
Julie knew right away where it belonged.
In its own way, the plaque is an emotional centerpiece for the exhibit of military uniforms, letters to and from those serving in combat zones and fading photos of young men and women, most of whom have grown old. Some never came back.
That’s what the plaque was all about.
The words were still clear despite the obvious aging process it had gone through:
“Erected in honor of the 972 men and women who left the company to enter military service in World War II,
“In memory of the following employees who died while serving in the Armed Forces of the United States during that war.”
Those words were followed by a listing of names under towns in Central Indiana. There were 16 from Columbus; five from Franklin; three from Greenwood; one from North Vernon; and eight from Seymour.
Underneath the list in very small type were the words:
Columbus-Franklin-Greenwood-North Vernon and Seymour.
The name Noblitt-Sparks has been long gone from the industrial roll call of Columbus.
There are some old-timers who still remember it and even a few still alive who once worked there.
Most people today only remember it by the name it adopted in 1950 — Arvin Industries. Even that is beginning to fade from the collective memory owing to the merger with Meritor Inc. in 2000 and the subsequent dropping of the Arvin name in 2011.
The corporate history is interesting, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the tale of how that 50-pound plaque found its way back home.
That story was told in a note accompanying the package from Jim Mertz with an address in Algonquin, Ill.
Jim is a veteran, having served in the Vietnam War. His family has a deep military background, three of his grandparents served in World War I.
On a summer day last year he was in an American Legion Post near his home when a man walked into the building lugging a heavy package. He opened it to reveal the plaque. Jim didn’t recognize any of the names or the towns of Columbus, Franklin, Greenwood, North Vernon or Seymour. He certainly had no clue as to what a Noblitt-Sparks was but the significance of the plaque was obvious.
Jim talked to the man, who identified himself as Jose Fajardo. “He told me that the plaque was given to him by his brother who had discovered it years earlier while working on a demolition project. It had been wrapped up like a package and his brother had found it behind a wall.”
Unfortunately, the brother didn’t tell Jose the town in which he had made the discovery, but that he wanted to keep it in the hopes he might find someone who would be interested in it for its historical value.
The brother gave up that search and turned it over to Jose, who in turn thought that someone from the Illinois Legion post would have such an interest.
That was Jim Mertz.
For several months Jim embarked on a search for Noblitt-Sparks Industries which had ceased to exist by that name 62 years ago. He finally made the connection, learned of its fate and settled upon the Historical Society as the most likely recipient.
Jim solved his own mystery, but one remained — the story of the plaque.
Jim Baker, former chairman of Arvin Industries who started work at the company in the late 1950s, had vague memories of a plaque that had been positioned outside the company’s headquarters which until the late ’80s was in the building on 13th Street that now houses the United Way of Bartholomew County.
Chuck Watson, a former Arvin vice president, recalls a stone near the entrance to the old headquarters that might have held such a marker.
How it got inside the building and even behind a wall is an even greater mystery.
There have been two major demolition projects at the building in the past 25 years. The first followed the move of the headquarters to the old Garfield School when the building was reconfigured for new tenants. A number of false walls were erected.
The second followed the 2009 fire in the United Way building which led agency officials to order a demolition of a portion of the building. The fire caused extensive damage, including to scores of items relating to Arvin history which had been donated by company historian Larry Ruble.
Until someone comes forward with some definitive answers, the plaque has a new home. It’s in accordance with the last paragraph of Jim’s letter.
“This journey has now ended at your Historical Society. I hope this Veterans Day has a little more meaning to those that attend because of this plaque. Please find it a nice, new home for all to see and to remember those whose names are listed on it. I believe God has a special place in heaven for these veterans.”
Harry McCawley is associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached by phone at 379-5620 or email at email@example.com.
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