Reading at the Crossroads

Reading at the Crossroads is an archive for columns and letters which appeared in the Terre Haute Tribune Star. I also blog here when my patience is exhausted by what I feel is irritating, irrational and/or ironic in life. --gary daily

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Location: Terre Haute, Indiana, United States

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Saturday, October 21, 2017

Gene Debs and Peaches

There are some women and men in American history whose stories can never be told too often. Their contributions to our society remain fresh in meaning, inexhaustible in significance, and unfailing in their capacity to inspire. One such person is Eugene Victor Debs (1855-1926).

Debs was born, grew up and died in Terre Haute.

Gene Debs of Terre Haute, Indiana, was a national labor organizer.

Eugene Debs of Terre Haute, Indiana, was a spellbinding orator in support of all workers and against all wars.

Eugene Victor Debs of Terre Haute, Indiana, ran for President under the Socialist Party banner in five elections. Yes, I said he ran for president in FIVE elections.

And on this last point, I should add this:  Debs’s last presidential campaign was in 1920. He conducted it from his cell in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary.  Debs was in jail because of his outspoken opposition to World War I. This button says it all:  “For President - Convict 9653.” Nearly one million citizens voted for Gene Debs.

This past Saturday night the Eugene V. Debs Foundation held it’s annual fund raising banquet. This banquet has taken place every year, with one exception, since 1965.  It serves two primary purposes. It raises money to support the upkeep of the Debs home and museum located at 451 N. 8th St.  It’s looking good. The Debs home is an official National Historic Landmark of the National Parks system of the Department of Interior. 

The yearly gatherings also recognize an individual or an organization that has worked for justice and equality in the Debs tradition.  Honorees include men and women from labor, politics, and  the arts.  A few names: Dorothy Day, Jesse Jackson, Pete Seeger, Kurt Vonnegeut, Barbara Ehernreich, Danny Glover. All proud Debs Award recipients. 

Each banquet begins with the recitation of a line from one of Debs many famous writings and speeches.  Reciting this Debs Pledge, hearing others recite it, thinking about it, can change you.  Eugene Debs was working to change the world with the thoughts expressed in this pledge: 

“While there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

I’ve attended at least 40 of the 52 Debs Banquets. Remembering the taking of the Debs pledge,  one night in the mid-70s stands out for me. 

Tony Hulman, the now departed owner of Hulman and Company and the Indianapolis 500 Motor Speedway was on the dais.  His father, Herman, had founded the family fortune.  As a teenager Gene Debs had worked for Herman Hulman.  Tony Hulman was at the Debs dinner on this particular night (he attended many) to be recognized for a generous gift to the Debs Foundation that was used to refurbish and fill the walls of the third story of the house with a magnificent mural telling the story of Debs’ life and work. [Visit the Museum. See this mural.]

Tony Hulman, or “Big Tone” as his millionaire buddies and race car drivers supposedly called him, accepted a speech from the Debs Foundation  thanking  him for his generosity with grace and modesty.  Then he told the story of how Gene Debs, a  kindly  gentleman in the neighborhood  would round up  kids buy them all ice cream cones.  So it seems Debs treated “Big Tone” to an ice cream on a summer’s day around 1910 and “Big Tone” remembered it sixty years later with pride and fondness.

 And  I remember that I once shook “Big Tone’s’ hand.  I’m excited even now to think I shook the hand of a man who held an ice cream cone given to him by the hand of  Eugene Victor Debs.

Allow me to finish with a poem about friends who have passed, and to my mind, also about ideals that remain ripe, continue to offer hope even as we drift and curse a troubled world.  In other words, a poem in The Debs Tradition.

A Meeting 
by Wendell Berry

In a dream I meet
my dead friend. He has,
I know, gone long and far,
and yet he is the same
for the dead are changeless.
They grow no older.
It is I who have changed,
grown strange to what I was.
Yet I, the changed one,
ask: "How you been?"
He grins and looks at me.
"I been eating peaches
off some mighty fine trees."

[Prose piece for Arts Illiana Poetry (and prose) Gathering #109, October 19, 2017]


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