IN THE BIG CITY
America was winding down a century of maturation in an optimistic advance to the next one. And rural America was increasingly wending its way into urban centers, each influencing the other. Ingredients were cohering that would give rise to a uniquely flavored concoction which would be called the Indiana Society of Chicago. And Hoosier George Ade (perhaps so destined) was to be the first among co-concoctors.
He was a wide-eyed boy of five near Kentland, Indiana in 1871 when the city of Chicago, in extraordinary fashion, cast out its lure to him. Much later, after achieving big city fame and fortune as a writer during the Golden Age of Hoosier Literature, George Ade reminisced about this singular event.
"That one night in October, just as far back as I can reach in the past, we sat on the fence and looked at a blur of illumination in the northern sky and learned that the city, which we had not seen, was burning up in a highly successful fashion."
A dramatic display of predestination? Perhaps to some, but it was simply a reality about a century ago that gifted Hoosiers with certain talents and ambitions had darn best transplant themselves within that lakeside city now blazing with opportunity - and, of course, some excesses.
Some Hoosiers might well have boasted that Chicago was actually the grateful beneficiary of the luminous talent pool offered up by its goodhearted neighboring state. After all, the Chicago flag features four six-pointed crimson stars and the points of one star represent France, Great Britain, Virginia, the Northwest Territory, Illinois Statehood and the Indiana Territory!
And so, it became a decidedly symbiotic, backscratching relationship, even if there were culture clashes now and then. In fact, somewhat biting the hand that fed him, as a writer for a Chicago newspaper, George Ade's Hoosier values flowed through his pen as he characteristically revealed and ridiculed big city pretension and self-importance.
Ade began at the customary bottom in 1890 as a weather reporter for a major Chicago newspaper. He shared a room in a seedy rooming house with his Purdue University Sigma Chi fraternity brother, John T. McCutcheon, who was something of a writer himself, but more of an artist. Ade's journalistic skills were apparent early on, and he was given the plum assignment of covering Chicago's colossal coming of age party for the world, the Colombian Exposition of 1893. After the success of his descriptive pieces entitled "All Roads Lead to the Fair," with pen and ink illustrations by John T. McCutcheon, he was given a permanent column and became one of Chicago's first roving reporters, free to cover anything he wished. "Stories of the Street and of the Town," once again illustrated by McCutcheon, was masterful, as was his book, "Fables in Slang" published in 1897.
He tried his hand at writing for the stage with resounding results: three smash hits, The County Chairman, The Sho-Gun and his most popular and successful work, The College Widow, ran simultaneously on Broadway in 1905. Now wealthy, he purchased a farm near Brook, Indiana, built his estate home, Hazelden, and hosted visits by Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Will Rogers, Douglas MacArthur, Tom Mix, Gene Tunney and other celebrities.
The esteemed critic, H.L. Mencken said, his writing was "as thoroughly American in cut and color, in tang and savor, in structure and point of view as the works of Will Dean Howell. . .or Mark Twain." His name and estate established, he was freed up and of a mind to start a Society.
The name of his friend, John T. McCutcheon, to some generations is synonymous with his famous "Injun Summer" drawing and text, evoking boyhood memories of curling smoke from bonfires in Hoosier corn fields. It first appeared in the Chicago Tribune in 1912 and continues today, each autumn. As featured cartoonist, McCutcheon was the first Tribune staff member to win a Pulitzer Prize. His artistry would prove to be invaluable to the Indiana Society of Chicago.
Lesser known, but also very important to the Society's birth was Edward M. Holloway. Although in a seemingly undistinguished role as a Federal Court Clerk in Chicago, his pragmatism and organizational skills were instrumental in structuring the Society into being. His grandfather was Indiana's Civil War Governor, Oliver P. Morton. And this relationship endowed him with a network of Hoosier notables who would form a highly visible, powerful, Indiana-imbued membership base.
There had been failed attempts by others in 1901 to bring together the Hoosier natives in the Windy City through the "Indiana Club of Chicago." But it would take these three Indiana expatriates with extraordinary complementary talents and a common bond to form the Indiana Society of Chicago. On September 22, 1905, forty-seven men signed on as charter members.
The inaugural Dinner celebration of one's good fortune at having glorious Indiana roots took place on December 21, 1905, at the elegant Auditorium Hotel on Michigan Avenue. The camaraderie, pride and high-spirited humor that pulsated through that first Dinner have been the hallmarks of 82 subsequent Dinners.
There were 375 tuxedo-clad men in attendance who were served a menu of Blue Point, Whitefish au Chablis, Tenderloin of Beef Bordelaise, Roast Philadelphia Squab, Cream of Spinach Solferino, Sorbet au Kirsch, Meringue Glace and even more. This sumptuous array certainly befitting such a history-making occasion was virtually duplicated for the Society's 90th Anniversary Dinner on December 2, 1995 at the Chicago Hilton & Towers, and this time for over 1500 formally-attired men and women.
The playfully irreverent intention of the Society was forever ingrained at its initial dinner by Ade in his opening remarks, ". . .I came to Chicago, but I couldn't get away from Hoosiers. In fact, you can't get away from a Hoosier no matter where you go. Needless to say, I found Chicago surcharged with Hoosier exiles - men who were here not because they wanted to leave Indiana, but because the population up here could be worked more easily than the bright native article down home."
He also later laid down the dinner program ground rules. ". . .the Annual Dinner comes every December. These dinners have been notable because the members and guests attending them have not been bored to death by long speeches. At every dinner there are four headliners chosen with even more care than accompanies a selection for the Hall of Fame. We play no favorites. Even the statesmen and politicians are admitted on terms of equality with the authors, the judges, and the predatory rich. . .the main asset of the Indiana Society is the enthusiastic good fellowship of its members."
Writer and charter member, Wilbur Nesbitt, certainly recognized the state's unique significance, and speaking at the 1905 Dinner referred to "that first of all Hoosiers - Adam, and further noted that Christopher Columbus was a great Hoosier." Hence, the naming of Columbus, Indiana. Nesbitt also confirmed that "the Garden of Eden was located in what is now Brown County."
This manner of having fun with people and places lives on not only in the wit of comedians on the program, but also in the traditional ballroom parade of gag signs that jibe "good-naturedly" at the pretentious, the self-important - and rib fellow members to insure their humility will be intact for yet another year.
Among the headliners at the first dinner were, in addition to Ade, McCutcheon and Holloway, fellow Board of Trustee member, Senator Albert T. Beveridge, Federal Judge and later Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis and the Presidents of Purdue and Notre Dame Universities.
At the time of the Society's creation, Indiana was the toast of the literary world, second only to New York in the number of published authors. This Golden Age of Indiana Literature would naturally influence the Society's early membership composition and character of its celebratory dinners.
Besides Ade, McCutcheon and Nesbitt, other literary luminaries associated with the Society included James Whitcomb Riley, Booth Tarkington, Meredith Nicholson, Kin Hubbard and George Barr McCutcheon. James Whitcomb Riley, as Hoosier a poet as ever was, summed up the Society's charter members as "you who have the fortune of birth and the misfortune of migration."
The Society has honored an Indiana Company at the Society's Annual Dinner since 1950. Honorees have included Eli Lilly & Company, United Air Lines, NIPSCO, Ball Corporation, Marsh Foods, Cummins-Allison Corporation, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and Vectren.
The Society began honoring a different Indiana Educational institution in 1968. Recent Honorees have included Valparaiso University, Purdue University, Vincennes University, the University of Notre Dame, Indiana State University and Indiana University. This remained the practice until 1995 when, uniquely and with great result, the City of Vincennes, Vincennes University and six local firms with deep community ties were collectively honored. The celebration of Hoosier places and people, honorees have also included important institutions such as the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the James Whitcomb Riley Society, the Indiana Historical Society, and the State of Indiana itself.
Other Dinner Traditions
The Indiana Society of Chicago has always prided itself on attracting star performers for its Dinner entertainment. The legendary Hoagy Carmichael was a mainstay of the Society. Veteran members recall with relish the dinner of 1955 when the scheduled headliner was unable at the last moment to make his appearance, so Carmichael sprang to the stage and gave an incomparable, impromptu performance that brought down the house. Fortunately, audiotape of that memorable event resides in the Society's archives.
We were delighted that, at the 1999 Dinner, Randy Carmichael, Hoagy's son, and his rhythm group performed tunes made famous by his father, marking the 100th anniversary of the Hoosier composer's birth in Bloomington Indiana.
In earlier years the theater talents of members, costumed to the hilt, were showcased in satirical, if not downright silly skits. One such features an elephant and Santa Claus, who arrived on a donkey and passed out checks written on "The Banks of the Wabash." Often stage sets were constructed to commemorate historical events such as America's intervention in World War I. One featured a replica of trenches and ruins at the battle scene of Chateau Thierry. Other innovative Hoosier theme sets were the old Vincennes Fort and the Chicago Dearborn Street Station, complete with a miniature Monon Railroad train.
During the Depression and World War II, the good-humored spirit of the Society may have been subdued, but it never flickered out. In some years in the 1940's and 1950's, musical extravaganzas were produced with original words and music. As the 1950's came to a close, big-name professional entertainers like humorist Herb Shriner truly enthralled dinner-goers. A parade of outstanding performers ensued: Phil Harris, the Smothers Brothers, Phyllis Diller, Tom Dreesen, Jerry Van Dyke, Rich Little, as well as Mark Russell, Kevin Nealon from Saturday Night Live, and Comedy Central's and Indiana's home town boy and Society member, Jim Gaffigan. Bippus-native Chris Schenkel had served as the Master of Ceremonies on numerous occasions.
Entertainment takes turns with traditional ceremony during the evening. The dinner is "officially" underway with the annual parade of the Culver Military Academy Color Guard followed by a hearty toast to Indiana by the Governor. Musical performers which have included the Purdue University Glee Club and Straight No Chaser from Indiana University joyfully signal the close, the Governor and Miss Indiana leading all voices in a stirring rendition of "On the Banks of the Wabash."
Always one of the most anticipated traditions is the remembrance of Society members deceased since the previous dinner. The "Necrologist," in a darkened room, begins by reciting a short poem by James Whitcomb Riley with its affirmation of the memory and spirit for ones living on. He then solemnly calls each of the departed members' names while cadets extinguish candles in their honor. The orchestra's muted strains begin to build, finally exploding into a jazzy crescendo of "Back Home Again in Indiana" as a celebration of their lives. "All honor to their Hoosier names!" asks the necrologist as shouts of "Hear, Hear" ring out and close the ceremony.
The Tried, The True, and The New
If the Indiana Society of Chicago were to create a banner, the words "Tradition" and "Celebration" and of course, "Indiana" would most likely be emblazoned on it. But the world teaches that "words held on high don't always take hold at ground level."
And in that light, the Society's Board of Directors met during the summer of 1995 for an introspective planning retreat - and made a reality check. The result was a strong reaffirmation of purpose and setting of some new goals and resolutions:
In 1997, the Society responded to a critical need for financial assistance to deserving students and formed a foundation to provide scholarships to greater Chicago area men and women attending colleges and universities in the State of Indiana. An Indiana Society of Chicago Scholarship has since been awarded at each Annual Dinner to students in their junior year from that year's honored educational institution. The response from the membership has been enormous -- the generous contributions have allowed the Society to award multiple scholarships within a given year.
Early in the century, the Society's summer outings to Hazelden, Culver's Lake Maxinkuckee, South Bend and Indianapolis were enjoyed by the members. The tradition was re-established in 1997 with a September outing to Ade's refurbished Hazelden. Its rededication, with dignitaries from the State of Indiana and Newton County presiding, was part of a festive day featuring golf, tennis, tours, entertainment and an old-fashioned hog roast with all the trimmins'. This historic event co-sponsored by the George Ade Memorial Association, the Indiana Historical Society and the Indiana Society of Chicago was revived, and reflects the new outreach direction of the Society.
Seizing an exciting opportunity the Indiana Society of Chicago commissioned a painting in the promotional poster-art series, a combined effort by the South Shore Railroad and numerous Northwest Indiana businesses, under the auspices of the Northwest Indiana Forum. This painting, by noted artist and Indiana Society of Chicago member, Mitchell Markovitz, uniquely depicts our world-famous skyline towering above Lake Michigan as viewed from the shores of Hammond, Indiana. Poster reprints are available for purchase by members and collectors alike. Most importantly, all proceeds from the sale of these poster reprints are directed to the Society's Scholarship Foundation.
A true Hoosier may be best defined as one who is filled to personal capacity with undying Hoosier spirit, whether native born or acquired, and will so proudly inform the world. It most likely would tax and tire the imagination of outsiders to picture 1000 plus full-of-it Hoosier men and women in proud, formal attire, swelling to capacity a resplendent, resonating Chicago hotel ballroom with an exuberance of spirit - all in tribute to Indiana. Veteran observers have reported that there is no other event quite like it in all our universe.
Though it may not produce an alluring glow visible to young eyes near Kentland, the intensity of human spirit and respect for history and values has nonetheless dramatically attracted generation after generation. Perhaps the phenomenon of such a Society speaks with downhome meaning to an uncertain, seemingly rootless world grown impersonal and complicated. Or maybe its simply because "the winds of Heaven never favored the border of a better land than our Indiana."
Robert L. Ganchiff