80 years ago today, Dillinger and gang woke Greencastle up

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Even in the midst of a generation gap, you can never underestimate the value of a proper frame of reference.

It hasn't been too many years ago that a college professor friend noted that he had then taught long enough that students in his class had all been born after the end of the Vietnam War. (Of course, he's also the same guy who confided that he'd been teaching so long, it was now the mothers of the campus coeds that caught his eye each fall).

Since the end of the Vietnam War came in April 1975, even those folks born soon thereafter are all now in their late 30s. Yep, guess they can't be trusted now either.

We bring all that up because with everything that has happened in our lifetime, it's difficult to comprehend not being around when JFK was assassinated, Neil Armstrong took one small step for man on the moon or Richard Nixon saluted his ugly goodbye.

That generation gap hit home a couple years back as DePauw University found itself short a faculty member to teach the one and only newswriting and editing class then on its schedule. After some arm twisting (decidedly not as painful then as now) yours truly agreed to tackle that chore, figuring it might be an intriguingly unusual experience.

So I tried my best to make it fun (although grading all those papers proved anything but fun) for the class.

And around the anniversary date of the John Dillinger robbery of the old Central National Bank in Greencastle (southwest corner of Jackson and Washington streets) on Oct. 23, 1933 -- that's 80 years ago today -- I decided to put the class to a test by holding a mock press conference.

In order to get any and all information, they were going to have to pull it out of me as I pretended to be a police spokesman intent on giving the best Jack Webb, just-the-fact-ma'am answers.

It proved to be a painstakingly slow process, even for a mythical 1933.

Finally, one of the rowdier male students in the back of the room, asked: "So do you have any suspects or what?"

"Why, yes, we do," I eagerly replied. "In fact, we are certain who did this."

He impressively pressed for more information. "So you have a name?"

"We do," I said, answering only his specific question without embellishing it with a minor detail like the actual identity of the perpetrator.

"Who is it?" he was finally forced to ask.

"John Dillinger," came my short-and-sweet response. "Good, old Public Enemy No. 1."

And the room at Asbury Hall exploded.

"No way," several groaned.

"Awesome" was a common retort as responses ranged from full awareness to complete confusion. A couple sorority girls in the front row were left bewildered, shaking their heads as they asked rather indignantly, "Who's that?"

Until then it had never dawned on me that anyone, let alone an Indiana college student, could make it to adulthood without having a clue who John Dillinger might be.

And now, 79 years after his death (July 22, 1934 outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago where he had been watching Clark Gable in "Manhattan Melodrama") there seems to be little indication that interest in the long-dead Dillinger is declining.

After all, native Hoosier Dillinger has been the subject of at least 10 movies -- the latest being the 2009 "Public Enemies" flop starring Johnny Depp as Dillinger complete with a scene from the Greencastle heist that produced a career-high $75,000 in cash and negotiable bonds for the gang.

He's been played on screen by the likes of Warren Oates (1973), Mark Harmon (1991), Lawrence Tierney (1945), Ralph Meeker (1960), Nick Adams (1965), Robert Conrad (1979), Martin Sheen (1995) and Depp.

A celebrity criminal made famous by a Depression era in which some folks considered bankers bigger crooks than bank robbers for foreclosing on farms and homes, Dillinger always had the fastest cars and the slickest suits.

He was the George Clooney-Tom Cruise-Leonardo DiCaprio of his era.

And he essentially died with a pretty gal on each arm as he exited the movie house that hot July night in Chicago.

Yes, Dillinger was such a big deal, that one of my predecessors in the Greencastle newspaper editor's seat penned quite a notable reaction to all the national publicity the city had received in The Daily Banner of Oct. 24, 1933.

In response to Greencastle grabbing banner (aka across-the-top-of-the-page) headlines in many major metropolitan newspapers and even radio coverage from New York City stations (the CNN/MSNBC/Fox News Channel of the time) following the heist, he boasted: "It will be a long time before such a break comes for this city again."

Certainly most of us wouldn't go quite that far, even if it were indeed a memorable day in local history.

Eighty years and counting, and it's a story still worth retelling.