Letter to the Editor

Greencastle retrospective

Thursday, August 18, 2016

To the Editor:

When we lived in Greencastle I vowed never to write something like this -- a short piece about what it was like to live in the town way back when. In those days occasionally the Banner Graphic would publish an essay or letter to the editor by an old codger reminiscing about what it was like in the old days, and I thought it was just the rose-colored remembrances of someone who forgot a lot of the crummy details.

Promises are made to be broken, and it's my turn to write such a piece, although I'm only 63 years old and don't consider myself an old codger, although some might say so.

First, the context. We arrived in Greencastle in 1985 from Chicago when I took the job as media relations director at DePauw University. Our two children were born while we lived here and we resided in three different rented residences within the city limits -- all within three years. Needless to say it was a very busy time for us. Then in 1988 I took a new job up in New Hampshire and we've been there ever since.

Three years doesn't sound like a long time in the scheme of things, but Greencastle made a huge difference in our lives. We transitioned into "small-town people," and still reside in a small city, albeit in New England and about three times larger than Greencastle. Still, the dynamics are the same -- in small towns everything is important, and you know all your neighbors and all their backstories, good and bad. You're on display in a small town, and there are few secrets that can be kept hidden for very long.

Old people always think that times were better in the old days. That's not true, almost everything is much better now. What is different is that life then didn't seem as complicated, and certainly the world didn't seem as fraught with things like terrorism, street violence at the intensity it is now, or racial divides as strong as they appear now. In those years the Cold War was ending, and new challenges had not yet appeared on the horizon. Also, the speed of information had not yet reached breakneck levels; we didn't even have mobile phones and the latest in technology was a new ATM machine at the banks in Greencastle. The 1990s were still a few years off, and who would have expected that they would be as prosperous as they would become?

One thing we only fully realized about Greencastle came after we'd moved to New England. In Greencastle neighbors and friends dropped by unannounced to visit. Maybe that's still true in town. In New England that's never done. If a neighbor or friend shows up unannounced it's disconcerting to a New Englander. In Greencastle we had people over at our houses all the time, and we had many friends who reciprocated. Sometimes it seemed we lived in a commune.

The culture at DePauw University was very informal, friendly, almost like Mayberry from the old Andy Griffith Show. The pace was slow, and nobody seemed too antsy to speed it up. There was a cadence to life both at DePauw and in Greencastle. It could lull you to sleep if you didn't watch it, but it was soothing and comforting.

About a year before we left Greencastle two things changed. One, I became restless in my job and realized that the university offered few opportunities for advancement, it just wasn't big enough, and I was too ambitious. Secondly, something was changing at DePauw, it was the dawn of what would later become known as political correctness. Among my group at the university which included faculty and administrators there was even a name we gave to it then, the "thought police" who seemed to take it upon themselves to monitor what was said. It was, to us at least, a kind of new Puritanism. It seemed harmless at first, then grew more serious. People began to look over their shoulders, watched what they said lest they lose favor, or be given unwritten demerits.

We've come back to Greencastle every year for the past three on summertime Midwest driving tours. So much has changed, but so much remains the same. I often wonder when I look at the buzzbomb in the square how it came about that Greencastle got that thing. Was it because we were last on the list to get war surplus monuments, or the first on the list?

One thing that impresses me is that Greencastle has been able to attract so much new industry and business. In New England it's so much more restrictive to new businesses, taxes are so much higher, and Indiana seems so much more receptive to new companies. You can feel the difference. Also, you can feel more now that Greencastle has become a far suburb of Indianapolis, where 30 years ago it was a self-contained town.

DePauw looks gorgeous and I wonder where they get their money. I heard the last university president had the brand new beautiful entrance to the university dismantled, but I'll bet the new president puts it back. Often I read about donors giving millions of dollars in one fell swoop. The institution does a good job of instilling loyalty among its alums, and has a long-standing ability to extract big money from those people.

Downtown looks much better, but it's still struggling, like so many small-town downtowns. Again, thanks to the university and some state money there's a viable effort that just may succeed. The new homes and residential developments in Greencastle look great, and the older homes are kept up decently.

We still have wonderful friends in Greencastle, and get the lowdown from them on the gossip and goings-on in town, which is always great grist for the talking mill. Unfortunately the list of people we knew who have died is growing.

Most importantly to me, the town has a relaxed, laid-back feel, just as it had when we arrived back in 1985. May it remain that way.

John McGauley

Keene, N.H.