Thursday, August 26, 2010

Max Ehrmann at the Crossroads

For me there are two big stories concerning Max Ehrmann at the crossroads, the first is the story of him and his life, and the second is the story of his statue.

Max Ehrmann was a great writer and a native of Terre Haute.  He was born and raised here, and lived here basically his whole life other than college (in Depauw, IN) and grad school (Harvard).  He did a short stint as a lawyer, and worked for has family business (an overall factory, where Glidden Furniture is now) for a few decades.  But his avocation in college was writing, and he loved it as a young man, and at age forty he turned to writing full time.  He wrote 6 books in 10 years at one point, and plays, and essays.  But he was known for his poetry. His poem "A Prayer" was read on the floor of the Senate in 1909.  The book of poetry it was from was translated into several other languages during Ehrmann's lifetime.  But he was best known for his poem "Desiderata" which was only mildly famous in his lifetime, but had extensive circulation in the 60s and 70s, a recording of it even won a spoken word Grammy in 1971.  Ehrmann's poetry is philosophical and humble, hokey you might say, earnest, without any sarcasm, bitterness or slick stylistic tricks.

One of the stanzas of the Desiderata says
"You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should."  
And this is pretty typical of Ehrmann's style and substance.

It's easy to be proud of Ehrmann's unassuming wisdom and grace, but he died 65 years ago, as of Sept 9th.  So what credit is he to the Terre Haute we live in?  That's the second part of the story.  You see Terre Haute really cares about the arts, even if we don't have the funding of some larger cities.  People have been kicking around the idea of trying to find ways to honor great figures from Terre Haute's past for decades, without much luck.  Oh we had the Deb's house, and the Allen Chapel, and a small monument to Terre Haute's Olympic medal winners up in 12 points, but not a lot.  And then, according to a story I heard, a visitor from Australia went looking for the monument to Max Ehrmann, the famous writer of the Desiderata, and was told there wasn't one, and heads started scratching.  So ArtsIlliana got involved (who have worked with lotsof arts in the Wabash area since 1980), and then Art Spaces ( a group formed in 2003 to promote public outdoor sculpture in the Wabash, they were the force behind the strange horses a few years ago, and the car sculptures now).  The way the birdees twitter in my ear, Mary Kramer of Art Spaces had everything to do with bring the monument to Ehrmann from idea to reality.  But this is what you must understand, many, many groups and people contributed in many ways to this monument.   Companies like Vectren and Old National Bank ponied up funding, the city government worked on planning and maintenance, (and let one of their engineers donate a lot of work time to the engineering issues).  A brickmaking company (Boral Bricks) donated the bricks, and a labor union did the bricklaying as a donation to the city.  The school board granted the city a land easement for land the monument is on.  A trucking company donated the transport of the bricks and finished bronze statue.  Several law firms donated the benches.  Many local charities helped in various ways, from ArtsIlliana and ArtSpaces who organized it all (and plead for the money), to Trees Inc, who donated the trees, to the Optimists who've agreed to keep it clean for the next two years.  And then there are all the private individuals who helped with time or money or expertise.  I'm sitting here with the program, and I recognize maybe one name in 5.  This was really a whole community working together.  And I could give a dozen stories like this.

But I'll pick one more.  My friend Dorothy Jerse is an old lady, and a long time fan of history and Terre Haute.  She's been on the board of the Vigo County Historical Society, heck I'll bet she ran it at one point.  The program with lists of thanks mentions Bill and Dorothy Jerse as helping Art Spaces, and lists the "Wednesday Breakfast Group" as making a donation "in honor of Dorothy Jerse." (I love that one of the donations was from something called the "Wednesday Breakfast Group")  During the grand unveiling ceremony earlier today, I see Dorothy ambling up to get a closer look at the finished statue, and she sees me and my kids and greets me.  And she takes my hands in hers, and leans over real close to me and says quietly in my ear, "I'm so glad our downtown is honoring a poet and not a general or politician or something."

And so am I.

Mary Kramer said it best "Now a poet sits at the Crossroads of America.  How many towns can boast that a poet watches over their heart?"

Just one more reason I'm proud of Terre Haute.

P.S. Ehrmann's plaque reads "poet and philosopher" that makes the philosopher side of me feel warm and fuzzy too ...

P.P.S. On Sept 2, I got a photo taken of me and my kids and a bunch of people from my church (including Dorothy Jerse) at the dedication ceremony of the statue.  Max Ehrmann's widow was one of the early members (perhaps one of the founding members of our local church)


  1. I wasn't able to go to the dedication, but we went after dinner to see the statue and grounds. While we were there, maybe 20 minutes, no fewer than fifteen other people walked through, read the plaques, admired the statue, and most importantly, started chatting with each other. It hadn't been open for 3 hours, nor was it even finished yet, but it was already bring people together in a friendly atmosphere. I'm looking forward to taking my kids there for lunch soon!

  2. Missed the dedication too but saw the sculpture wrapped in blue plastic before last night. That in itself was a piece of artwork! BTW, when I lived in Vincennes many years ago, we'd come to Terre Haute to see the architecture. Yep, many houses aren't wearing the years well but many are. Either way, the architectural elements are a real delight to those of us who appreciate detail and craftmanship by artisans of the past.