Our next governor will have a unique opportunity to refine Indiana’s reputation and mold its future. That’s true of every governor, of course, but it will be even more so for John Gregg or Mike Pence because one of them will oversee Indiana’s bicentennial.
Two hundred years of statehood is a big deal, and both candidates want to capitalize on it.
“I couldn’t be more excited about the prospect of being governor in the years approaching and celebrating our bicentennial,” said Pence. “You have to remember I’m a history major from Hanover College. I love this stuff.”
“I was 12 when Indiana had our sesquicentennial — 150 years,” Gregg recalled. “I remember my dad grew a beard, my little hometown had a festival. And some people tried to dress in pioneer garb and stuff like that, which was really fun.”
The winner of the Nov. 6 election will inherit a 13-member bicentennial commission assembled by Gov. Mitch Daniels and chaired by outgoing Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman, a Republican, and former U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton, a Democrat.
The commission has met twice but has no money or staff, so it’s angling for a line item in the next biennial budget. Skillman and Hamilton are in contact with Pence and Gregg, respectively, about the commission’s plans, which are centering on the theme of “Hoosier Homecoming.”
In his January State of the State address, Daniels announced the commission’s first initiative: the formation of a Bicentennial Nature Trust to acquire land for trail, park and wetland projects that would be “places of beauty for future generations.” Daniels said the trust would be the sequel to the state’s major centennial initiative of 1916, the creation of the state park system.
While the trust will be part of the Daniels legacy, Gregg and Pence are both history buffs eager to put education at the forefront.
Gregg envisions statewide activities and local flavor. “I’d like to see different towns celebrating their heritage, whatever it was, in different ways.
“Indianapolis has a rich automotive industry going back to the turn of the last century. Maybe they’d focus on the automotive industry. Maybe you take a town like Kokomo that had the first gaslights, and you make something out of that. Maybe Gary, Indiana, which was founded for the sole purpose of steel manufacturing, celebrates that history. There’s so much, so much you can do.”
Pence is considering curriculum enhancement much to the delight of cultural and historical institutions whose mission is to educate citizens about Hoosier heritage. “One of the things I want to think hard about is when and how we teach history to our children because I think there is an argument for teaching Indiana history in a more fulsome way later in the education process.”
Indiana currently requires state history in grade four. A handful of high schools offer an Indiana studies elective, but the typical junior high and high school student will never revisit the subject and will graduate from college without any knowledge of Indiana’s distinctive constitution, its role in the Civil War, its literary and cultural icons, or the significant contributions of our only president, Benjamin Harrison.
Both candidates say Indiana has great stories to tell. In a recent interview, Gregg talked about everything from the Marquis de Lafayette’s stay in Indiana in the 1820s to the canal bankruptcy of the 1840s. He drew an unmistakable parallel between himself and James D. “Blue Jean” Williams, a homespun legislator who defeated Republican Harrison in the 1876 governor’s race. “I always take great pride in that — one [his] being a Democrat and two being from Knox County.”
Pence likewise rattled off Indiana historic firsts, and wondered aloud if it might be time that “every Hoosier child understands that Indiana was involved in the Revolutionary War, that every Hoosier child understands that Lincoln made Illinois but Indiana made Lincoln.”
One thing is clear talking to both men. They know Indiana history better than the average citizen — a worthy credential for any who aspires to be the Bicentennial Governor.
• Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s Episcopal School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.