A Columnists Day update: Ernie Pyle’s historic site trying to rebound:
By Mike Leonard
Previously Published by Herald Times 4/17/2011
National Columnists Day was established for an annual April 18 observation because it marks the day that columnist Ernie Pyle was killed on an island in the South Pacific during World War II.
Pyle was born in Dana, Ind., and educated at Indiana University, and it’s been a privilege for me as a Hoosier and longtime Bloomington resident to appreciate the fact that Ernie was “one of ours.” My colleagues across the country consider Pyle to be the epitome of the modern newspaper columnist, a journalist with integrity and courage and the skill to make readers embrace our common humanity — even in a time of war.
It would be nice to pop the champagne and toast Ernie’s connection to National Columnists Day but I don’t like champagne very much, I don’t know whether Ernie did, and part of me really wants to say, to a very specific audience: “Put a cork in it.”
The state of Indiana has treated Pyle shamefully. And specifically, I mean the Indiana Natural Resources Commission, the Department of Natural Resources and the Indiana State Museum that the DNR oversees.
In late 2009 and early 2010, the museum essentially swept in and plundered the Ernie Pyle State Historic Site in Dana with a blitzkrieg efficiency that would make the German army proud. They took hundreds of items donated by people who gave them for the expressed purpose of making Pyle’s boyhood home a repository for his writings, memorabilia and other artifacts associated with his life.
“It was a betrayal of trust,” says Phil Hess, a Dana-area resident and military veteran who has played a major role in trying to keep Ernie’s legacy alive through the Friends of Ernie Pyle nonprofit group. “Three significant donors and hundreds of GI donors expected their donation to be preserved and protected for generations to come.”
The bureaucrats at the state say they had to kill the state historic site to save it — or something like that. They called the Dana site the least-visited among all of their properties but conveniently left out the part about reducing funding and operation hours to the point they could say, “See? No one goes there.”
Hess said his group figures that if you add up a bequest from Pyle’s great friend, Paige Cavanaugh, which covered capital costs, and the money the site took in from admission fees, the state closed the site because it cost them $6,000 to operate in its final year. “That’s a quarter of 1 percent of their budget,” he said.
The bureaucrats were most concerned that the Cavanaugh money might not be available in the future, and capital costs — such as facility infrastructure maintenance — might cost them hundreds if not thousands of dollars in the future.
Hess and the Dana group fought hard to keep the site open and lost at every turn. The state closed the site and promised that Ernie’s stuff would get better display in Indianapolis. That has not happened.
“We spent six months trying to stay in the Indiana State Museum structure and then the last six months trying to learn how to get away,” Hess said.
The nonprofit friends enlisted some influential supporters, including Max Jones, editor of the Star-Tribune in nearby Terre Haute. Jones brought in the Hoosier State Press Association. And a larger and more diverse Friends of Ernie Pyle group has embarked on a national fundraising effort to create an endowment to get the Pyle site open and operating for years to come. It’s targeting the American Legion, which, helpfully, is based in Indianapolis. “I think they’d be a natural partner for us because not only did Ernie’s writing color the way soldiers saw the war; the stories he told in World War II tell the same kind of stories of veterans today,” Hess said.
The state has been cooperative — bless their tiny heads — in allowing the Pyle group to work on the site, which consists of Pyle’s boyhood home and two Quonset huts filled with displays and World War II memorabilia. Museum workers also gave the site some replicas of the items they took in late 2009 and early 2010. If all goes according to plan, the state will turn the property over to the Pyle group this summer and after that, its existence will depend on visitation and donations to the endowment campaign.
The volunteer Pyle group will begin opening the facilities on weekends in mid-May and hopes to add Friday to the mix this summer. Hess is hopeful the state might even lend them some of the items that were hauled to Indianapolis. The Indiana State Museum will never come close to displaying the volume of materials that had been collected in Dana.
“It’s still a good museum; we’ve still got a good story to tell here,” Hess said. “The next six months or so are really going to determine whether we’ll move forward or have to shut down.”
This is more than a journalism thing or even a matter of Hoosier pride. It’s about honoring a great man, and preserving the understanding of a critical time in our nation’s history, when millions of Americans sacrificed mightily to win a war that had profound implications for civilization on the planet.
“History’s easy to be forgotten,” Hess said. “You’ve really got to work at it to keep history alive, or it just passes away and people either forget or never learn it.”